It’s no doubt as easy to mock the characters in A Matter of Life and Death as it is the thwarted lovers in Brief Encounter, and equally misguided. Their breezy cheerfulness and dated language set them up as easy targets for a modern sensibility which only takes account of surface superficialities. In fact, these details cover up a nobility and underlying pain along with an all-pervasive self-effacement and open friendliness which I find eminently admirable. David Niven’s opening torrent of words as his plane plummets to a fiery doom are genuinely moving, as if he is trying to elucidate a whole lifetime’s philosophy in the few moments left to him. And his request to June to write to his mother in her own words to let her know that ‘I’ve always loved her, but never really showed it’ is beautifully done, conveying how much remains unsaid in any life. It’s probably at this point that June falls in love with him, I should imagine.
The characters are all types in a sense, and yet Emeric Pressburger’s dialogue and the playing of the actors bring them to life (and afterlife) and make us care for their plight. David Niven’s Peter is an idealist caught up in war, his mind focussed on the world which could emerge from the conflict. He is clearly bursting with ideas and has an intensely serious mind lying beneath a light-hearted exterior. His inner torment has the possibility to do him real harm. As Doctor Reeves puts it, ‘he has too fine a mind’, and that mind is riven with the conflicts of the age. Kim Hunter’s June is a practical, caring young woman whose optimism has remained stubbornly intact in the face of her experience of the blood of war. She has a friendly relationship with Dr Reeves and is unafraid of questioning his medical approaches.
Roger Livesey’s Dr Frank Reeves is a quietly authoritative figure who feels a sense of propriety over the villagers he watches through his camera obscura. Deeply committed to his work, he is a figure whose work during the war is merely a continuation of the calling which would place him at the centre of civilian life. Up above, Trubshaw is the good old boy, the loyal companion, simple but goodhearted, taking pleasure in beer, women and cricket, possibly not in that order. Conductor 71 is a dandified official with a heart and an overrefined sense of style, whose initial duplicity in the face of bureaucratic rebuke is gradually replaced by his romantic advocacy of Peter’s case.
The numerous characters who play a less significant role are all imbued with a sense of personality, even if this is only conveyed through one line (Dickie Attenborough’s awestruck airman realising ‘this is heaven, isn’t it’ as he looks down on the cityscape of bureaucratic records offices). There is a comedy vicar, New Joisey Yanks brushing up their Shakespeare, the icy cool of Kathleen Byron’s heavenly (in both ways) receptionist, and the beaky dignity of the celestial, impressively bewigged judge. These characters are all created with a sense of generosity and lack of condescension which deflates any potential stereotyping. Only the prosecution counsel Abraham Farlan fails to win our sympathy. He was the first soldier shot by an Englishman in the American War of Independence, and he has clearly failed, in the modern parlance, to ‘get over it’. His twisted, hate-fuelled soul is ably conveyed by the facial grimaces of Raymond Massey. Just as the story pits the universal against the personal, these characters and the actors who bring them to life ensure that real people lie at the heart of the colourful fantasy which surrounds but doesn’t overwhelm them.