A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (4K restoration) movie review: paradise on Earth

A Matter of Life and Death green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

One of the most beloved British films ever is now even more lush, more gorgeous, more humanist in a glorious new restored edition.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): loved the movie before it was restored
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

A Matter of Life and Death, from the legendary writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is one of the most beloved British films ever made. And it’s easy to see why: It’s a deliciously preposterous romance between two gorgeous people whom you cannot help but root for as their love is threatened. It’s a profoundly humanist fantasy about our place in the universe and the importance of living a full life. And it’s a dazzling visual spectacle that is deeply viscerally satisfying even as it deals with big ideas and big emotions. This is a movie that sucks you in from all angles and keeps you warm and cozy in its cocoon.

The amazing sensory lushness of the film is on grand display in the brand-new 4K restoration now on British screens. (It’s coming to the US soon too, and it won’t be called Stairway to Heaven, as it was during its initial US release in 1946, but will retain the British title this time.) The glorious Technicolor is so rich and so juicy that the movie looks more real than reality. The black-and-white segments are so creamy and satiny as to seem actually edible. (Technical details on the restoration available at industry magazine Post.) But ah! The movie’s deliberate mixing of limited and unlimited palettes pops even more now, which only serves to underscore its humanism.

A Matter of Life and Death is a dazzling visual spectacle that is deeply viscerally satisfying even as it deals with big ideas and big emotions.

For those who are not familiar with A Matter of Life and Death — and if you’re not, now is your chance to remedy that — the beautifully vivid color segments are the ones that take place in the real world, where, in England at the tail end of World War II, RAF pilot Peter (David Niven: Around the World in 80 Days) and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) fall in love, so quickly that it would be laughable if they somehow didn’t magically sweep you up in the headiness of it. They’re calling each other “darling” literally moments after meeting in person… and, sure, romances can get forged fast in wartime, and sure, their previous “meeting” over the radio the night before was pretty intense because he was about to bail out of his damaged plane over the English Channel without a parachute, and they both obviously presumed he was about to die. (Also, Niven was a decade too old, and looked it, to be playing a callow 27-years-young wannabe poet. But never mind.) If you might die tomorrow, why not fall in love instantly?

Heaven can wait: David Niven defends his life, and wants to go back to it.
Heaven can wait: David Niven defends his life, and wants to go back to it.

The thing is, though, Peter was supposed to die yesterday! He was not meant to survive a freefall to the sea and wash up on the beach in one piece. (We don’t see how he managed this.) But the emissary from the hereafter, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), who should have collected him missed him in the bloody English fog! So now all of the Other World is in an uproar, because mistakes like this simply do not happen. In a reversal of what you might expect from a fantasy, it is the scenes of the afterlife that are black-and-white. It’s certainly a lively place: Goring’s conductor is a hoot, and the “trial” that Peter stands Up There to determine whether he should be allowed to continue his earthly life involves impassioned intellectual debate. But next to the beauty of planet Earth and the possibilities of romance (and maybe the writing of some poetry!), the afterlife and its bureaucracy is just that little bit duller.

Does Peter actually get visits on Earth from Conductor 71? Does Peter actually visit the Other World to plead his case? Or is it all in his head, which appears to have taken a serious bump when he bailed? The film leaves that up to the viewer to decide — either scenario works well. What A Matter of Life and Death does not leave open to interpretation is the notion that a mortal existence full of books and table tennis and motorcycles and kisses, and dynamic people to share them all with, is far preferrable to a genteel afterlife. This is a movie that echoes in many that came after it, across genres — Albert Brooks’s dramedy Defending Your Life springs to mind, for one; so does horror flick The Sixth Sense — but I can’t think of one that is so resolutely on the side of fleshly, earthy living.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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