Tuesday, 5 May 2009

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

7. Voices and Accents

I would love to have an accent like Roger Livesey. It has the soft, slightly rasped but perfectly balanced quality of a fine malt whisky. Possessed of a gentle, unassuming authoritativeness, it is like a beautifully played musical instrument. There is another Powell and Pressburger film, ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, in which he translates a Highland song for Wendy Hiller, who is trying to stick to the righteous path of marrying into money. Suddenly, Livesey turns to face her directly as he comes to the line ‘you’re the one for me’. She is doomed from that moment on. When Dr Reeves arrives in heaven (chatting with fellow-spirit John Bunyan) and is told that Peter has chosen him as his defending counsel, he gives a quietly satisfied, humourous smile and says ‘I hoped he might’. The understated quality of his response (no whooping and punching the air here) is full of the warmest affection.

There is much play with accents in A Matter of Life and Death. They are seen as embodying national characteristics but never fall into condescending stereotyping. They are too characterful for that. After all, they were created by a writer (Pressburger) who, as a European Jew between the wars, had been buffeted from country to country by the winds of history and who therefore had friends of many different backgrounds. He unfailingly found the best in these varied nationalities to the extent that even during the war, when propagandistic purposes might dictate otherwise, he was able to create sympathetic German characters. But he was never above a little gentle mockery as well. As we see newcomers reaching the top of the elevator into the celestial reception hall, there is an animated exchange in which a French airman wildly gesticulates as he re-enacts the final moments before his demise. The Englishman who is patiently listening to him and clearly understands not a word, nods as his tale concludes and says ‘bad luck old boy’. Two national stereotypes are painted with broad brushstrokes but there is a rather touching conclusion that such superficial differences of language and behaviour can be overcome by common experience and understanding.

There is much amusement to be had in the misunderstandings between Conductor 71 and, in heaven, Trubshaw and on Earth, Peter, but again they find that they all get along just fine in the end. After an initial misunderstanding over what ‘ ‘ad a few’ might mean, The Conductor and Trubshaw look like they are both ready to head for the bar as they bond over beer (‘ah, la biere’). And Peter and the Conductor eventually end up firmly on the same side as the Conductor’s romantic affinities lead him to give a little help at the trial.

The importance of voices is emphasised from the beginning. They are the first indications of human life that we encounter as we drift downwards to Earth and hear words emerging from both the English peasouper and the obscuring electronic fog of the radiophonic aether. Peter and June fall in love with each other’s voices. June says to Dr Reeves that ‘it’s his voice. I fell for that before I saw him’, whilst Peter tells the court that ‘we fell in love before we met’. People’s voices manage to convey much of their character, although they can also be used deceptively or strategically.

For English people, Churchill’s voice had come to represent the spirit of their country at a particular time, just as Hitler’s voice had seduced so many in Germany and beyond. This propagandistic use of the voice can be heard in the trial scene, in which Abraham Farlan indulges in some high nationalist rhetoric which serves to stir up certain sections of the crowd (although Trubshaw looks distinctly peeved). This is enhanced by the fact that he is striking noble poses looking outward from a striking rocky promontory. Another seductive voice using intoxicating language against a monumental backdrop to rally troops to a terrible and destructive cause. Facing each other across a literal gulf, Farlan and Dr Reeves are divided by time and by inclination. Farlan, in his American revolutionary uniform, is a soldier with a conscience rooted in war and a strident, hectoring and jingoistic voice to match. Dr Reeves stands in his tweed jacket, cardie and woollen tie and speaks with a reasoning, conciliatory voice, appealing to compassion and hope. His is the civilian voice of peacetime, of the future rather than the past (recent or otherwise).

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