Judge Dylan Charles is in DVD Heaven, thanks to these fantastic films.
Neither Heaven nor Earth could keep them apart!
Filmed on Australia's Great Barrier Reef!
One of the great perks of writing for DVD Verdict is that I'm constantly exposed to movies and directors that I might not otherwise have watched on my own. The one director who I'm most happy to have "met" is Mr. Michael Powell, whose films are always thought-provoking, entertaining, and works of cinematic beauty. Age of Consent and A Matter of Life and Death prove to be two more fine examples of Michael Powell's work.
Facts of the Case
Here's what you'll find in the The Films of Michael Powell:
• A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven as American audiences knew it when it was released here), tells the tale of British pilot Peter Carter (David Niven, Death on the Nile), who is shot down during the final days of World War II. Miraculously he survives and falls in love with an American radio officer (Kim Hunter, Planet of the Apes), but it turns out his survival was not to be and Heaven tells him he needs to come up topside. Peter must prove he deserves to live in a celestial trial.
• Age of Consent: Bradley Morahan (James Mason, A Star is Born) is an Australian artist who gets sick of all the art shows and art dealers and simpleminded art patrons in New York city. He returns to Australia and an isolated island to get away from it all. While there, he meets Cora (Helen Mirren, The Queen), your typical free-spirited young woman who dreams of bigger things than serving her alcoholic, abusive grandmother. Cora begins to rekindle Morahan's love of life, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Sony's release of A Matter of Life and Death and Age of Consent restores the films to their original uncut glory. Both films had their share of difficulties when they were first released. A Matter of Life and Death was viewed as overly fantastical fare and a bit weird and goofy. Age of Consent (which was Michael Powell's final film) was brutalized by Columbia. Everything from the opening title cards to the film's soundtrack to the abundance of nudity was changed or removed. In spite of doing well in Australian theaters, the neutered butchered version did poorly in America. It's only now that American audiences can see The Age of Consent as Michael Powell intended it to be seen.
A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film and my favorite of the two. Before the end of the war, Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Powell's longtime collaborator) were asked to create a film that would help convince British and American audiences that a British and American alliance after the war was beneficial and necessary for both parties. World War II Americans were, apparently, viewing Britain as an imperialist dinosaur that had no business associating itself with young, upstart America. Powell and Pressburger came up with A Matter of Life and Death, which was released a year after the end of the war.
It's not until the end of the film that this theme really jumps to the fore, but throughout there are little light touches, such as the blooming romance between the two main characters who each represent their respective countries. Kim Hunter's character comes from Boston, one of the cities most identified with America's break from British rule, and Niven has a tendency to quote famous Brits like Sir Walter Raleigh.
Powell's Heaven is a fantastic thing. Devoid of color, it's a black-and-white futuristic bureaucracy where the recently departed sign up to get their wings before entering through a massive escalator. It looks more like a science-fiction Utopia than any conventional notions of the afterlife and a welcome change from puffy white clouds and winged seraphim with harps and halos.
Earth is a colorful, rich, vibrant place. One scene in particular, where David Niven's character sleeps in a study, surrounded by books while late afternoon light pours through the windows, makes full use of Technicolor. Powell almost makes Earth look better than Heaven and makes it even more plausible that Niven would reject heavenly delights to stay on Earth just a little longer.
Throughout there's also that cheeky humor that I think only the Brits can truly get away with. Niven's heavenly guide is a French aristo who lost his head during the French revolution and has a fondness for his former country and countrymen. He provides a fair amount of comic relief in a film that could have easily buried itself in a morbid pathos.
A Matter of Life and Death gets a bit odd toward the end and this comes from the propaganda aspects of the film. As I mentioned, the original point of the script was to convince the Americans and Brits that there was still something to be gained from an alliance and that Great Britain wasn't just an old, stodgy holdover from the bad, empire building days. The trial becomes less of a defense of David Niven's character and more a defense of Britain. It almost sacrifices the story just to prove the point that Britain isn't washed up and still has something to offer.
Age of Consent has a far more conventional plot than the fantasy laced A Matter of Life and Death. In fact, Age of Consent's plot is perhaps its weakest aspect. An artist finding his muse is hardly new and not a particularly gripping story anymore. But two things keep Age of Consent from becoming just another entry into that particular sub-genre: the acting and Powell's direction.
James Mason alone would have been enough of a coup; he adds the depth needed to make the overused archetype of world weary artist more interesting than it otherwise would have been. However, the real treasure here is Helen Mirren in her feature film debut as Cora. Even then, it's easy to see the actress that later win an Oscar. She brings style and poise, as well as wildness, to the role, and she does so in a way that makes it look natural and easy. Without Helen Mirren, this would have been a lesser movie and a less enjoyable one.
Powell manages to squeeze every last bit of beauty out of the Australian island paradise. He always has a mastery over light and shadow and color, and nowhere is this clearer than in this, his last film. Gorgeous tropical colors, blues, greens, reds are splashed across the screen. Powell takes a film that could have become substandard fare and turns it into a joy to behold with his camera work.
The extras are abundant and enjoyable. There are feature-length commentaries for each movie by film historians Ian Christie and Kent James. They're both entertaining and informative, cementing my opinion that the best commentaries are by historians. There are also interviews with Helen Mirren and Martin Scorsese. I admit I didn't at first catch the Scorsese connection since he had nothing to do with either movie, but he has a lot to say as a fan of Powell. Apparently he helped revive interest in Powell's films after most of the world had forgotten him.
Both films look gorgeous, which is good considering that the strong points of a Powell film are how they look. All things considered, I'd say that Sony has managed a DVD release that rivals Criterion's releases of Powell's movies in both quality and content.
This set is perfect both for fans of Michael Powell and people who don't know the least damn thing about him. It's a good introduction to his work, especially with the two commentaries as guides. Buy it or rent it, just be sure to watch them: A Matter of Life and Death for the story and acting, Age of Consent for the visuals and Helen Mirren.
Age of Consent and A Matter of Life and Death are not guilty.
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