The Films of Michael Powell (A Matter of Life and Death/Age of Consent) Review

Two films in one box: the 1946 fantasy/romance A Matter of Life and Death and Powell’s last feature Age of Consent. Review by Gary Couzens.

A Matter of Life and Death 10/10

1945, the last days of the war. Bomber pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is in trouble. His plane is crippled and he’d rather bail out – without a parachute – than burn to death. He speaks his last words to June (Kim Hunter), an American operative. There’s a connection between this man and this woman, both knowing that it will soon be ended. And then Peter jumps…but he survives. Unfortunately he wasn’t meant to: the Collector (Marius Goring) who was meant to collect Peter and escort him to heaven, lost him in the fog. The Collector tries to persuade Peter to return with him, but Peter, now in love with June, appeals. He has to stand trial, to ensure he remains on Earth…

A Matter of Life and Death (retitled Stairway to Heaven on its American release due to box-office qualms about the word Death in a film title) was intended as Powell and Pressburger’s follow-up to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale. However, in the last days of the war, Technicolor film stock – vital to their conception of the film – was in short supply, so the next Archers production was the black-and-white, relatively low-key and realistic I know Where I’m Going!. So it was that A Matter of Life and Death opened in 1946. It was chosen as the first Royal Command Performance.

Its first audiences had just come out of World War II, when so many friends and loved ones had died, and with that in mind, it’s very hard to watch the opening sequence, with Peter and June declaring love for each other in the knowledge that he will soon be dead, without a sizeable lump in the throat. But then something unexpected happens…we transition from Technicolor Earth to monochrome heaven, where Peter’s dead co-pilot Trubshawe (Robert Coote) is waiting for him…and waiting… A Matter of Life and Death is a very rich film: moving on from initial tragedy to mix romance and comedy with the kind of flights of fancy that characterised the Archers’s work of the time. It also helps that many of their collaborators were at the height of their powers. Jack Cardiff’s photography is a standout, shooting the whole film on Technicolor stock but printing the heavenly sequences with the colour drained (rather than using normal black and white stock). This allows him and the directors such coups as fading the colour up on the flower on the Collector’s lapel, hence Goring’s famous quip: “We are so starved for Technicolor up there.” Alfred Junge’s production design, especially the giant stairway that leads up to a very non-denominational heaven, is also outstanding.

David Niven had been a major star before the War, but had been largely absent from the screen during it due to military service. In his later career he was typecast as a stiff-upper-lip Englishman but he gives one of his finest performances here: covering a considerable emotional range. He’s well matched by Kim Hunter, who had been recommended to Powell and Pressburger by their former colleague Alfred Hitchcock: she had already starred in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. Roger Livesey, as a doctor who ends up helping Peter’s cause from both sides of the divide, and Raymond Massey, as the prosecuting counsel at Peter’s celestial trial, give authoritative supporting performances.

There’s a lot more to this film than at first appears – Ian Christie, in his commentary, sees it as an allegory of UK/US relations after the war, with Peter and June standing in for their respective countries. But the film is very much part of the Archers’s great period: moving, funny, romantic, alive to the possibilities of the medium. It’s an exhilarating piece of cinema.

Age of Consent 7/10

Bradley Morahan (James Mason) is a successful artist, but a jaded one who believes he is past his prime. He decides to get away from it all, on an offshore island near the Great Barrier Reef, where he discovers a young woman called Cora (Helen Mirren).

Age of Consent makes for an odd pairing with A Matter of Life and Death. If the earlier film is from Powell and Pressburger’s peak period, Age of Consent is a late-period film in more ways than one. By 1968, Powell’s partnership with Emeric Pressburger had come to an end, and the furore over Peeping Tom had made filmmaking difficult for him in England. So, after The Queen’s Guards (which I haven’t seen, but is reputedly terrible), he found it difficult to sustain his career. He worked on television for a while, then after a five-year gap on the big screen he made They’re a Weird Mob in Australia. The latter had been a local hit – and had acted as a stimulus to the soon-to-revive local film industry. Powell returned to Australia to make Age of Consent, based on Norman Lindsay’s book: Lindsay gets a proprietary credit at the beginning. (A much later Lindsay-inspired film is Sirens, made by another English-born director, John Duigan.)

Powell had long been an admirer of James Mason, who co-produced Age of Consent. In fact it was Mason’s involvement that enabled the film to be financed, so bad was the damage to Powell’s career . One abortive project of Powell and Mason’s was a film of The Tempest and Age of Consent has several echoes of Shakespeare’s play. It’s a story of a disillusioned Prospero invigorated by a youthful Miranda. (Miranda’s mother, played by Neva Carr-Glynn, doubles as Caliban and his mother Sycorax. And if there’s a Puck, it’s Godfrey the scene-stealing dog, who gets his own credit at the beginning.) The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final play, and Age of Consent was Powell’s final feature. (The Boy Who Turned Yellow, scripted by Pressburger and made in 1971 for the Children’s Film Foundation, is less than an hour long, so not strictly speaking a feature.) Like play, like film: both are playful, reflective works, which slip in and out of genre boundaries, musings on a life in art, its happy memories and its regrets.

Shot on location at Dunk Island, North Queensland, Age of Consent looks glorious in Hannes Staundinger’s camerawork. If there’s any film that unarguably has a male (heterosexual) gaze it’s this one, with Cora’s rapturously filmed nude scenes, particularly her underwater swim. Compare it if you like with a similar sequence in another important early film in the Australian film revival (though shot by a foreign director), featuring Jenny Agutter in Walkabout.

Mason’s Aussie accent is certainly shaky, but he gives an authoritative performance. Helen Mirren’s performance is more instinctive than many of her later roles, but this was an auspicious screen debut for her. They’re backed up by entertaining turns from Jack MacGowran and some notable local character actors of the time. As They’re a Weird Mob had done, the film acted as a stimulus to the about-to-revive Australian film industry: Wake in Fright (aka Outback) and Walkabout would follow fairly soon, and at about the same time, a British-born Melbourne resident called Tim Burstall was making a little black and white art move called Two Thousand Weeks, and local film production began to revive.

Age of Consent was re-edited by Columbia, who clearly found it uncommercial, and the film was not a hit. Particular objections were Helen Mirren’s posing as a nude Columbia torch lady in the opening credits painting, the nudity in the film in general, and also Peter Sculthorpe’s gamelan-influenced score, which is one of the film’s more distinctive features. (It was replaced by a Stanley Myers score, but this restoration reinstates Sculthorpe’s music.) The film is overlong and certainly not perfect – some of MacGowran’s comic relief goes a long way – but it’s an attractive, quirky and entertaining film all the same.

Like much of Powell’s work, with or without Pressburger, Age of Consent fell into neglect until Powell was championed by younger filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese about a decade later. Although he was planning future films until the day he died, Powell was never able to make another feature. You have to wonder if it was in the back of his mind that he might not.

The DVDs

A Matter of Life and Death and Age of Consent are released together in a two-disc digipak by Sony. Both films are shown in their uncut versions under those titles, though the packaging has the Stairway to Heaven alternate title in brackets. Both discs are encoded for Region 1 only.

A Matter of Life and Death was shot in Academy ratio and is present non-anamorphically in 4:3. This film was previously released in the UK by Carlton, in a transfer that seemed too orange. This one is much better. If it looks heightened by modern standards, that’s because 40s Technicolor does look like this: skies are blue and reds in particular pop. Cardiff’s photography has its darker scenes, but shadow detail is what you should expect. The colour-drained Heaven sequences are a pearly-grey monochrome rather than a more contrasty black and white.

Age of Consent was made in the widescreen era, and the DVD transfer is anamorphic in the ratio 1.85:1. This is another striking transfer, though given the different filmstocks and locations involved, it looks very different to the earlier film. There’s an extraordinary transparency of light, which I’m told is accurate for its location (I’ve never been). Skin tones tend towards orange, but that is surely due to suntan than DVD authoring.

Both films have their original mono soundtracks. Subtitles, in English or Spanish and yellow in colour, are provided for the features only.

Martin Scorsese provides introductions to both films (7:54 and 5:12 respectively). Re A Matter of Life and Death, he talks about how he, and other American film fans, discovered Powell and Pressburger’s work on television and how there was very little information about them. He then describes how he met and came to know Powell, before giving a brief account of the film itself.. On Age of Consent he describes his meeting with James Mason at a film festival, and their mutual admiration of Powell’s work.

The commentary on A Matter of Life and Death is provided, as indicated above, by Ian Christie. Christie is an authority on the Archers’ work, and he gives a scholarly, if not too dry talk about the film, the time when it was made, and its place in Powell’s career. As I mention above, he sees the film as an allegory of US/British relations after the war. Kent Jones does the honours with Age of Consent and provides a thorough run-through of the film’s production history and its subsequent re-editing and neglect. Despite his evident affection for the film, he doesn’t avoid criticism, finding some of the comic interludes too broad, and mentioning that the end-credits theme song could never be found acceptable today.

That’s it for A Matter of Life and Death, but Age of Consent has a few more extras. “Making Age of Consent” (16:39) features the director’s son Kevin Powell, who acted as unit production manager. We also hear from Peter Sculthorpe, editor Tony Buckley (later a noted producer in the Australian film revival) Of participants still alive, you might think Helen Mirren was a major omission, but she gets her own interview, “A Conversation with Cora” (12:18). This was her first feature film, and she tells of her considerable nervousness, which was allayed by Mason and Powell’s friendliness. She says her performance was mostly instinctual, as befitted the character of Cora, rather than one overly thought through. She’s not accurate to say she had the first nude scene in a major studio film, but it was certainly an early one, and something she seems proud of. Finally, there’s a piece on Ron and Valerie Taylor (10:01), who shot the underwater scenes.


Updated: Mar 29, 2009

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