“This is the Universe. Big, isn’t it?” a voice intones at the start of A Matter Of Life And Death as we drift through the Cosmos, through the Milky Way, our Solar System, past the Moon, down through our Earth’s atmosphere to the dying days of World War 2. Into the burning cockpit of a doomed Lancaster bomber where the young pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven) fights a desperate, losing battle to keep the aeroplane in the air, falling madly, and mutually, in love with June (Kim Hunter), the US radio operator who receives his Mayday call and hears what he thinks will be his final words “I love you, June. You’re life, and I’m leaving it” before he bails out of his plane, his parachute destroyed, preferring to be killed by the fall than by being burnt to death. 

Yet, impossibly, miraculously, Peter survives the crash, is washed ashore near the airbase, meets the devastated June as she cycles home. Love conquers all.     

There’s just one problem; through no fault of his own, Peter has cheated death, dodged his fate. He should have died in the crash but Heaven’s emissary, a foppish French aristocratic libertine guillotined during the Revolution, missed him in the fog over the English Channel. And when he tries to take Peter to the Afterlife, the young pilot refuses to go, demands the right to appeal, and a celestial court is convened in Heaven to allow Peter to plead his case, to argue for the right to life, to love, to live happily ever after with June. 

But is his trial all a delusion, symptomatic of a brain injury that may yet kill him? As Peter argues for his life, a dedicated doctor (the always wonderful Roger Livesey) battles to save him… 

Sumptuously shot by the legendary Jack Cardiff, Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death is a stunning, ambitious, playfully audacious humanist fantasy that may just be one of the most perfect films you’ll ever watch. Released in the aftermath of the Second World War, it’s a passionate celebration of life, of love, it’s monochrome vision of the Hereafter a crisp, sedate and ultimately comforting one where freshly killed airman and soldiers of all nationalities peacefully rub shoulders and carry their freshly issued angel wings under their arms in dry cleaning bags, administered by coolly compassionate uniformed Angels typified by the sleek, wonderful Kathleen Byron as they gather in galaxy-spanning ampitheatres to sit in judgment of mortal men and a giant escalator waits to convey Niven to eternity while, for want of a better term, reality is a vibrant, lurid Technicolour dream that prompts Goring’s heavenly messenger to wistfully bemoan how starved they are of colour on the other side.   

Perhaps the film’s most audacious gambit though is its refusal to explicitly state whether or not Niven’s visions of Goring and the celestial court are real or the fantasies of a possibly dying man, an introductory title screen stating: “This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental.” 

Beautifully composed and inventive, A Matter Of Life And Death is a true original, a touching, breathtaking, uncynical celebration of love and what it means to be alive.      

A Matter Of Life And Death is given a 4k restoration release in select cinemas this month

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