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A Matter of Life and Death Review

Do miracles happen? An airman surviving a catastrophic crash suggests so. Miracle and mistake, for directors Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, are interchangeable. They are two sides of the same coin, and as this directing pair trim the story of an airman who defies the odds and survives well past his final moments, A Matter of Life and Death takes on a whole new meaning. It is not a matter of life and death; it is the ethics of such survival. A tale of accidental purgatory, sweeping up a man who should neither be living nor dead. It is the sudden shift of emotions Peter Carter (David Niven) experiences that form the greatest moments of the piece.

He is a man rather angered by his sudden removal from reality. Somehow, he has escaped death, landing on the beaches near the base of a woman he shared his supposed final words with. Love blossoms, because of course it does. It does not take too long for their lives to entwine, and while this does help the pacing, it feels a tad disingenuous. Perhaps I am just a non-believer of this style, but the direction and story do little to convince anyone that it is a compelling or convincing changed. They are married by grief, the idea that June (Kim Hunter) is the final friendly voice Carter will ever hear. It is as though they had a sudden, blind date as one diced with death and the other is powerless to help. While this brief introduction to the two is engaging and gives us all the detail we should need to know, it does make the supporting performers around them rather weak. What is a weakness of character when the film looks superb, though?

A technically stellar film, A Matter of Life and Death makes use of the Technicolor thrills by incorporating the usual black and white tones into the cultural breach colour had made. Reality presented as colourful and terrifying, yet the trip to heaven showcasing the black and white simplicity of life after death. They do not present this afterlife as a horrendous place to be, in fact, it seems far nicer than the reality Peter Carter (Niven) finds himself in. Fighting for his life in the court beyond the land of the living, the film soon risks its effective premise and luck-laden lead for courtroom antics and dramatic twists. There is competency to be found, but the final act is far inferior to those moments of budding love between a man out of time and an American radio operator.

Post-war filmmaking often wishes to spin a lighter note in the face of troubling, haunting times. This Pressburger and Powell collaboration is fresh off the heels of an end to a devastating war, yet they handle their subject and themes with confidence and respect. How we fumble with our regrets and dearest problems in the face of death, only to be given a do-over, is the dream of nearly everyone. It is for Carter. Sprinkled within this tale of romance from beyond the grave are elements of religious doubt, the post-war attitude of servicemen, and the sparks of love that come from flutters with death. It is an exploration of emotion, conducted with brilliant writing and stellar performances. A Matter of Life and Death seems to believe in its characters and their actions so thoroughly. Miracles do happen.

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Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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