Those of us who take our movie viewing perhaps a bit too seriously are apt to speak in reverential, hushed tones when discussing the works of famed British duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This remarkable pair of filmmakers crafted an incredible series of films which managed to address Big Issues, including the impulse to make art, without ever seeming pretentious. They also pioneered the concept of "composed film," an idea which, to a professional musician like I am, is more than notable (no pun intended): it puts sound, particularly underscore, on an equal footing with image and makes everything from editing choices to performance styles reflective of it.
Nevertheless, despite their vaunted reputation to those of us with perhaps too much film watching time on our hands, I've come to discover that Powell and Pressburger are not the household names that we film fanatics seem to think they are. Mention any one of their most famous films to those who, while otherwise quite culturally adept, may not know who won the 1937 Best Picture Oscar, films like Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes, and you might get at least a passing nod of recognition. Try to discuss more relatively arcane fare like The 49th Parallel (despite its 1943 Best Picture nomination) or A Canterbury Tale and you're apt to quickly winnow out the men from the boys, film-fanatically speaking. Whether you're one of the former, more resolute types who can recite every Powell-Pressburger film in chronological order, or a more casual film viewer who may have heard of the pair only in passing, or even seen one or two of their films, this new two DVD set from Sony brings together one of their most celebrated triumphs, finally out in Region 1, A Matter of Life and Death (released stateside as Stairway to Heaven), along with Michael Powell's final film, the lusciously beautiful if at times less than completely successful Age of Consent.
By the time A Matter of Life and Death was released in 1946, Powell and Pressburger had risen to the stratosphere of the British film industry, an industry that they themselves helped to forge and make successful over the preceding decade. Brought together by producer Alexander Korda in a neat little piece of serendipity, the two quickly realized that, while sharing virtually nothing in common other than a love of film, they were uniquely well matched as writing, directing and producing partners. It didn't take them long to emerge from Korda's rather imposing producing shadow, and they set up their own production company, The Archers, which went on to release a string of critically acclaimed and popular films that managed to satisfy the frequently disparate aims of Art and Commerce. A Matter of Life and Death finds the pair at the peak of their creative powers, fashioning a plot-heavy piece that on its surface is nothing more than a love story between British squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven, returning to films after having fought for years in World War II) and Britain-based American radio operator June (Kim Hunter).
As with many, if not most, of Powell and Pressburger's work, the surface story only hints at the depths that are actually contained within the film. A Matter of Life and Death actually manages to be both a sterling fantasy film as well as an ultra-realistic neuro-psychological treatise, all without seeming portentous or didactic. Peter, it turns out, was slated for death, but due to "heavy fog," managed to escape the grasp of the Grim Reaper (whose emissary, Conductor 71, played by the outrageous Marius Goring, is actually a ghostly 18th century French aristocratic fop). In the intervening day before heaven figures out they're one soul shy of a full load, Peter falls in love with June and doesn't take lightly to Conductor 71's attempts to hoist him skyward. That sets up one of the two major subplots of the film, a heavenly trial to determine whether or not Peter will be allowed to live out his life, hopefully happily with June.
But Powell and Pressburger throw a slight realist wrench into the works by also positing that Peter is suffering from a brain injury, leading to the involvement of a brain surgeon, played by the elegant and quietly forceful Roger Livesey, who becomes convinced that Peter's alarmed insistence that a heavenly messenger is hounding him is simply the latest symptom of a concussion that will ultimately take Peter's life if not operated on. And so the audience is left with an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum--is Peter actually experiencing heavenly visions, or is he simply hallucinating?
Underneath this brilliant interweaving of fantasy and reality is another, more sociopolitical, aim. Peter is obviously a personification of Britain, and June one of the United States, and the film aims to explicate and dramatically portray a relationship that, as World War II wound down, was on the cusp of having to reimagine itself in new and often unexpected ways. This particular aspect of the film is brought lovingly, if acerbically, to life in the final trial scenes, where Livesey, the stalwart Brit, pleads Peter's case and Raymond Massey, portraying a long-dead victim of the American Revolution (shot by a British soldier), argues against it. It's a fascinating multi-layered dialectic that has very rarely been attempted in film, and probably never so successfully realized as it is in A Matter of Life and Death.
For a film as plot-heavy as this one is, one might think that performances don't really matter or amount to much, but yet again Powell-Pressburger defy convention and even expectation by giving us a quartet of leading acting jobs that provide an amazing amount of depth and emotional heft to the proceedings. Niven, while understated in his usual manner, brings a soulful presence to Peter that anchors the film solidly from an emotional perspective and keeps it from being merely an intellectual exercise. Hunter, really breaking through here for the first time despite a half dozen or so supporting roles before this one, manages to walk a fine performance line between some overtly treacly material and the native strength that June is called upon to display. Livesey and Goring are simply delights in their supporting roles, lending both humor and intelligence to their portrayals.
In a film this rich with meaning and seemingly nearly infinite amounts of self-reference and genius, it's next to impossible not to seem to only scratch the surface in attempts to adequately describe its many charms and outright touches of brilliance. One could wax on about the formal correspondences between the oval openings with which production designer Alfred Junge populates his vision of heaven and the similarly oval (and quasi-heavenly) camera obscura with which Livesey's Doctor views his little English village. Or one could comment on the brilliant climactic denouement when Peter's brain surgeon is revealed to be played by the same actor who has been the heavenly Judge for most of the film. Or the counter-intuitive stylistic choice of having the earthbound scenes in gorgeous Technicolor and the heavenly scenes in black and white might be mentioned--something that while initially perhaps disconcerting, plays brilliantly into the creators' filmic analysis of what we know versus what we imagine. But, again, these are only a few examples of a masterly control of form, style and substance which Powell and Pressburger routinely brought to their best work. Frankly, in my not so humble opinion, there's no better example of their very remarkable achievements in film than A Matter of Life and Death.
Though the pair continued to make films for about another decade, some might argue that Life and Death was the beginning of their pinnacle of creative activity (followed in short order as it was by Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, the two films for which they're probably best remembered by the public at large). Though The Archers remained intact as a production entity until 1957, for all intents and purposes the pair's last real success story was 1951's The Tales of Hoffmann, an explosion of color and music based on Offenbach's celebrated opera. When the pair parted amicably six years later, Powell went on to direct his most notorious film, Peeping Tom, in 1960, a film that was so critically reviled (not to mention completely misunderstood) that it more or less ended Powell's career in one fell swoop. I won't get into a critical analysis of Peeping Tom here, other than to say anyone who thinks the film is only about a serial killer who films his victims meeting their fates is probably the same sort of person who would allege that A Matter of Life and Death is only a love story. How the critics of the day could have missed Powell's very piquant observations in Peeping Tom on the nature of film itself and the viewing audience, not to mention the relationship between the two, is frankly beyond me.
Be that as it may, Powell found himself such a pariah that he was literally unable to find work after Peeping Tom's release, despite having several projects he sought ardently to get greenlit and funded. By the time the mid- to late 60s rolled around, Powell's reputation was largely in tatters due to Peeping Tom and no one seemed to remember his decades of innovation and box office success (his "resurrection" via the efforts of such American directors as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola was still a decade or so in the future). Age of Consent, which sadly turned out to be his final film, only got made because star James Mason came on board as co-producer and raised most of the funds for the film itself.
The film was made entirely in Australia, with Powell divorced from his comfort-level of longtime British film industry collaborators (though he sought advice from many of his comrades-in-arms, notably Pressburger himself). That fissure shows throughout the film, which is spottily edited at times and frankly horribly looped at others (especially in the opening scenes, which are a bit of a grind to get through for that very reason). That said, this is arguably the most fantastically colorful film in all of Powell's oeuvre, something quite remarkable when you take such landmark Technicolor Powell (and Pressburger) achievements as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes into consideration. The film also makes some cogent comments on what it means to create, especially when one is disillusioned about the creative process itself.
Age of Consent, based on an illustrated 1935 novel by noted Australian artist Norman Lindsay, follows the exploits of painter Bradley Morahan (Mason), who, unlike the down and out character in the original book, is instead here a world-renowned, jaded success story who attempts to escape the stifling confines of New York City (actually Sydney) and find his roots and artistic soul on the beaches of Dunk Island next to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Morahan quickly finds himself involved with a young girl on the island named Cora (Helen Mirren in her first film role), whom he starts using as a model. Cora is an uneducated free spirit living with her alcoholic grandmother, who whips her and regularly bemoans Cora's "slutty" behavior (despite the fact that Cora is seen fighting off the advances of at least one ardent young man). There are various other subplots, including a sort of sleazy supporting turn by veteran actor Jack MacGowran as Bradley's on the make friend who's always looking for a handout, but the film is by and large a duet between Mason as an aging, disenchanted creator looking to reinvigorate his muse, and Mirren as a sort of prototypical late-60s flower child, albeit one with an atavistic streak.
In both some supplemental featurettes and the interesting, if extremely low key, commentary by Kent Jones, it's mentioned that Powell and Mason actually had designs on adapting Shakespeare's "The Tempest" for the screen, and as is pointed out, Age of Consent bears certain resemblances to the Bard's depiction of an aging conjurer on an island paradise. If Mason is Prospero as painter, one might naturally think of Mirren as Miranda, but the fact is she's actually more like a distaff version of Caliban, a native gone wild with few if any moral imperatives to guide her way. Age of Consent lovingly depicts Cora's growing awareness of her own sexuality and, more generally, potential, as Bradley's attentions, artistically oriented as they are (at least for most of the film), make her realize she's not necessarily consigned to a life of squalor with her drunken grandmother.
If Age of Consent never quite finds the right balance between humor and pathos, something that Powell in his heyday was able to do virtually with his eyes closed, it is nonetheless a fascinating film to watch, if for no other reason than it's so gloriously filmed. This is some of the most breathtaking use of color in any film of the era, featuring beautiful underwater scenes of the Great Barrier Reef (filmed by Ron Taylor), as well as long, langorous shots of the aquamarine waters and ecru beaches of Dunk Island. If the novel was about an artist trying to reconnect with color, the film proves unmistakably that Powell needed no similar reconnection--he was already there, waist deep in teals and maroons, saffrons and violets, mixing his palette like the master he was.
The film is also an interesting examination of an artist perhaps a bit past his prime who obviously stands for Powell himself (though scenarist Peter Yeldham makes Bradley a stunning success story, something Powell wasn't by that time). It therefore has the sort of resigned wisdom that comes from age and the withering disappointments that career downturns can provide to some artists. Mason is a quiet revelation in the role, able to convey a lifetime's compromises with a sideways glance. Mirren is nothing short of revelatory, and it's easy to see why this film, despite not doing well beyond the shores of Australia, launched her into the top tier of British thespians. Her Cora is alternately cunning and completely vulnerable, and Mirren essays Cora's blossoming sexuality without a hint of prurience, especially notable when you consider the fact that, as Mirren laughingly relates, Age of Consent featured the first "non-porno" full frontal female nudity in a general release film. For those of you who may associate Mirren with The Queen or even Prime Suspect, prepare to be blown away by an alluringly gorgeous young woman who manages to be voluptuous without ever seeming cheap.
The film was hated by Columbia and was more or less taken away from Powell and Mason. A number of perplexing decisions were made, including replacing the title sequence, which parodied Columbia's Liberty mascot with a painting of a nude Mirren, as well as editing out some of the more overt sexual elements (elements which to our modern jaded sensibilities seem almost quaint). Most distressingly, they removed Peter Sculthorpe's evocative, gamelan influenced score, a work of unusual subtlety and color, and replaced it with a more modern sounding Stanley Myers soundtrack. The original elements were restored in 2005, and it is that version which is presented here (though I for one would have loved an alternate audio track with the Myers score, just for comparison's sake).
If Age of Consent never approaches the giddy heights of Powell and Pressburger's best work, it's a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of Art and those who create it. It's a damned shame that Powell found himself a victim of the commerce side of the age old equation, with Consent's relatively paltry box office preventing him from ever making another film.
Age of Consent's enhanced 1.85:1 image is glorious from a color standpoint, with eye popping saturation and resplendent, deep hues throughout the film. The image is a tad on the soft side, which I'm sure accurately represents its late-1960s theatrical presentation. There's also a fair amount of completely natural looking grain, especially evident in the stormy beach shots that frequent the film.