Friday, 3 April 2009

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Greatest British Film Ever Made - Part One


1. Imagination vs. Realism
Britain seems to have something of a problem with using its imagination when it comes to film-making. Films often seem to come with the epithet ‘gritty’ built-in and documentary-style social realism is the ne plus ultra of critical worthiness. Indeed, if anyone strays from the path of drab, grey realism, they are usually thought to have retreated from the real world, possibly into genre realms at which respectable critics would wrinkle their noses in distaste before putting aside their lengthy bargepoles. And yet it was not always thus.

Director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger were a collaborative film-making team who, under the very English nom-de-plume of The Archers, were active from the 1930s through to the fifties. Probably their best-known and most popular film, A Matter of Life and Death, is a riot of colour (and black and white) and fantasy and yet it never loses sight of the real world. The opening words, ‘this is the story of two worlds’, resonate on so many levels. It is the story of Earth and Heaven, of inner and outer realities, of the universal and the personal, the historic and the individual, New and Old Worlds, and of imagination and realism, and ultimately it is about how all these dualities can be transcended through the vision which comes through an active and enquiring imagination.

The seemingly opposite approaches of imagination and realism (we could also call it the opposition of romanticism and realism) are embedded in the very form of the film, with a sly and knowing twist. The black and white cinematography which has come to represent a certain type of realism is used for the scenes set in the fantastic surrounds of Heaven, whilst the sumptuous, heightened reality of the colour scenes are saved for Earth (and the Universe). It is as if Powell and Pressburger are saying that there could be nothing LESS realistic than a world depicted in black and white. The world is not drab and dull, it is glorious and vibrantly alive with colour (well, unless that ‘ruddy peasouper’ rolls in). As Conductor 71 says, with a wistful sigh, ‘one is starved for technicolour up there’.

Peter’s inner world is presented to us on the screen as if it were real, and Dr Reeves makes it clear that in effect it is. The world of the imagination impacts on the world outside, not least because it allows us to see how the world could be rather than just accepting it as it is. In a sense, Peter’s view of Heaven is his view of what the real world could be. It ‘starts where this one could leave if only we’d listened to Plato, Aristotle and Jesus’. The clean, ordered white spaces and curved lines certainly suggest that this is a Modernist heaven; indeed, Peter worries that he might have a modernist design of ‘prop’ wings rather than the traditional model, but fortunately his heaven mixes the traditional with the new. The view through giant ceiling portholes of the vast bureaucracies of heaven could be an architect’s plan of a model city to be built over the rubble of blitzed ruins. This is clearly also a socialist world of equality for all; When an American troop bustles in to the reception room and their leader signs in demanding ‘Officer’s quarters, of course,’ he is met with the calm response (from the beatific Kathleen Byron) ‘we’re all the same up here’. One of his soldiers immediately nudges him to one side with the words ‘excuse me…Brother’.


The vital necessity of Peter winning his case, which Dr Reeves forcefully states, is partly the need for the reconciliation of the ideal and the real, a reality which has been dominated by the destruction and chaos of war for years. It is the need for the readmission of hope and optimism. It is also centrally, of course, about the importance of love and therefore of the highest of individual values which gives meaning to life in the face of vast and often depersonalised historical forces. Powell and Pressburger’s unashamedly (for there is nothing to be ashamed of) Romantic view of the World embodied in June’s tear caught in the petals of a rose. A tear with the strength to bring the vast mechanisms of the Universe grinding to a halt.



A Matter of Life and Death amounts to a manifesto for the primacy of imagination in the arts. Through references both direct and allusive, Powell and Pressburger locate themselves in the English tradition of romantic writers and artists who have manifested inner worlds in the forms of the fantastic. One of Doctor Reeves’ defences of England in the face of prosecutor Abraham Farlan’s assaults is to assert its lineage of poetic visionaries, citing Donne, Dryden, Pope, Shelley and Keats. Pope is the satirical voice who weights the balance of the unfettered imagination with the need to maintain a practical sense of realism. Dryden was also very much engaged with the political realities of his times, the post-Cromwellian Restoration period.

The film sustains a similar balancing of imaginative and realistic forces, grounding moments of extravagant fantasy with gently sardonic humour. Thus, Conductor 71’s summoning up of an instantaneous (and instantaneously terminated) tempest to illustrate his opinion that time is ‘mere tyranny’ is greeted with Peter’s request ‘you’ll let me know if you’re going to do that again’, and his earlier metaphysical assertion that ‘we are talking in space, not in time’ is met with the abrupt response ‘are you cracked?’ Peter himself is a young poet and Dr Reeves suggests that he may take his place in the continuing line of the English poetic tradition – if he is given time.

Other nods to the imagination in arts are alluded to in the classical pastoral of the beach scene, the production of A Midsummer Nights Dream which the vicar is struggling to put on, and the visual antecedents in Blake, and Gustave Dore’s illustrations to Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy and others (in black and white, of course). Dr Reeves, the character who serves to give voice to the film’s themes more than any other, gives what amounts to a guide to the creation of successful imaginative fantasy in his assessment of Peter’s created world. ‘He never steps outside the limits of his own imagination. Nothing he invents is entirely fantastic. It’s invention, but logical invention.’

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