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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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.

A Matter of Life and Death is now playing in some UK cities, and will expand to others soon. See the official site for details.

A Matter of Life and Death opens at Film Forum in New York City on December 29th, for a one-week-only engagement.

green light 5 stars

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A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (1946) | directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
US/Can release: Dec 29 2017 (original release Dec 25 1946)
UK/Ire release: Dec 08 2017 (original release Dec 15 1946)

MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements
BBFC: rated U (mild threat)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
posted in:
classics | dramedy | fantasy | reviews | romance

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • bronxbee

    david niven, kim hunter, goring, and my favorite, under rated actor: Roger Livesy of the equally glorious I Know Where I’m Going…

  • SteveCrook

    Why should you expect the earth to be shown in B&W and the “other place” in colour. We can see that earth is in colour. Maybe the “other place” (never named as ‘heaven’) is in something that’s as far beyond colour as colour is beyond B&W? :)


  • SteveCrook

    And Roger was also in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (of course)

    A very under rathed actor. Roger was mainly a stage actor in the UK & the USA. He played in a few other films but mainly played avuncular characters like the older friend of the hero.


  • althea

    Thanks for this share, both of you! I didn’t know him, but his IMDB catalog is a treasure trove of things I’d love to look into. I love old British film and TV. This’ll be fun.

  • bronxbee

    yes, i’ve seen Colonel Blimp… not my favorite, but i love him.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    For the same reason Oz is in color, and Kansas in black and white. It’s a simple visual shorthand to make one place seem idyllic, and the other mundane. The choice here is, as MAJ says, a reversal form the typical choices made by filmmakers.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Niven was a decade too old, and looked it, to be playing a callow 27-years-young wannabe poet.

    Seriously. Look at that still. What was he when this was made, 45? 50?

    36?? What the hell? And yet here he is at 27 (as Bertie Wooster):
    And here he is at 73 (looking just dapper AF):

    It’s like he hit 50 fast, and just stayed there.

  • Because “Heaven” is supposed to be better than Earth. Paradise is supposed to be better than reality. And yet this movie suggests that maybe what we have here and now is better than the fantasy we’ve been sold as coming later.

  • Bluejay

    I had never heard of this film, but on your recommendation my family and I just saw it at the Film Forum. Absolutely wonderful in all the ways you’ve described. Thanks.

    The moment I actually choked up was (do I need to have a SPOILER alert for a 1946 film?) the introduction of the American jury at the “celestial” trial, where each member was pointedly of a different geographic and cultural origin but introduced themselves as “American citizen.” And it included an Asian American character played by an Asian American actor without a put-on “Asian” accent, something so many Hollywood films couldn’t manage decades later! We’re used to Americans patting ourselves on the back for being a nation of immigrants (at least until the bigotry of the Trump era has made it controversial), but it’s striking to see a British film celebrate that vision of American diversity (and offer a startlingly honest acknowledgment of the crimes of the British empire as well).

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