A Matter Of Life And Death Movie Review
Yes, sure, Powell (and frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger) made family fare like The Red Shoes, but A Matter of Life and Death (often known by its alternate title, Stairway to Heaven) is something entirely else. To wit: The story involves a British airman named Peter (David Niven), who is on the verge of crashing his plane during his World War II mission, and spends his last moments before bailing out speaking over the radio to American wireless operator June (Kim Hunter), with whom he makes a special connection. Peter jumps before crashing, but is surprised to find himself washing up ashore, fully intact. And wouldn't you know it, he soon encounters June, and the two are immediately in love.
Here's where things get weird, as we discover the reason Peter survived is that the angels couldn't find him to take him to heaven, and once they catch up with him a day later, he decides he now has reason enough to remain on earth: June. Though Peter's time is up, his argument that he has a new purpose in life is persuasive -- persuasive enough to merit a celestial court case to fight for his right to return to earth -- and to prove that love can (literally) conquer death.
It's a bizarre story, but it's impossible to deny its power and engagement. Lord knows it sounds cheesy, complete with foppish angels (er, "heavenly conductors") debating points of logic on a mammoth stage. There's even the stairway as mentioned in the U.S. title of the film: It's not a figurative symbol but a real -- and enormous -- escalator to heaven. All you have to do is hitch a ride to get there. Funny thing though that none of this gets in the way of what is a very sweet and touching tale.
The film divides neatly into two parts: Peter and June coming together on earth, then Peter's trial in the stars, judged by a jury of angels, mainly soldiers who faught in wars spanning back centuries. Both pieces work, with Niven earnest in expressing his abrupt love for June, and even more so as he defends his life, or at least his right to it. (Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life owes a great debt to Powell and Pressburger's movie). Of course, it's the inventive script and equally adept direction that makes it all work out. The duo put so much care and love into the film that in the end we know they're right: Love really is the greatest of all virtues.