A Matter of Life and Death suffers the unusual condition of being too good for its own good. Writing, directing, and producing team Powell and Pressburger (The Archers), along with their crew and much of their cast, do singular work on Matter. Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor is so breathtaking a character can get away with commenting on it. Marius Goring plays that character, a pleasant French aristocrat who’s gone on to work as a grim reaper. Goring’s one of the phenom performances. The others are Roger Livesey, Robert Coote, and Raymond Massey. None of the performances slack, of course, they just aren’t exceptional creations.
Unfortunately, leads David Niven and Kim Hunter aren’t on that list. Matter is ostensibly the story of Niven and Hunter’s great love overcoming death (hence the title). The film opens with a rending sequence where British bomber captain Niven calls in and gives his final report to American Hunter; they have an awkward, deep flirtation—see, Niven’s about to jump without a parachute because it beats burning alive in his doomed plane. He and Hunter have a quick get-to-know-you talk, then forecast an impossible future before Niven’s got to go.
This entire sequence is peerless. Cardiff’s photography, Reginald Mills’s cutting, Niven, Hunter. It’s movie magic.
It’s also Hunter and Niven’s biggest scene together. Alone, anyway. Matter’s not very long, given the eventual scale, just 104 minutes. And it makes that time by not spending much of it on Hunter and Niven’s romance. Instead, the movie races to bring in Livesey, which is great because Livesey’s great, and he gives one of the all-time heroic everyman lead performances.
Except, Niven’s the lead. He’s just nowhere near as fun to watch. Especially not once he starts napping most of the time. While Niven’s convinced he’s got to defend his right to stay alive to Goring and an otherworldly tribunal of some sort, doctor Livesey’s sure he’s got a very specific kind of brain tumor. Hunter then spends most of her time with Livesey until the third act because they’re caring for Niven. Livesey’s also a badass Brit biker, so there are a few motorcycle sequences ranging from harrowing to charming. Despite the wartime context, the Archers find the little joys in the characters’ lives.
Which makes it all the stranger when Massey—the prosecuting attorney, a Revolutionary War veteran who still hates the colonizing British—brings up how wartime romances are just a little bump and grind, and they don’t lead to anyone putting a ring on it. The most dramatic rising action is all about this big trial, and then it’s just a couple talking heads. Niven’s not even in the scene because the Archers know he’d only distract from Massey, who’s… well, divine.
But the movie still rests it all on Hunter and Niven’s romance being deeper. Sure, Hunter dotes on him, but Niven’s basically in a medical crisis through their entire courtship–and we don’t even get to see the most relevant parts of it because it’d have delayed Livesey showing up. Matter’s fine with holding its reveals once Livesey’s arrived, but until then, it’s racing to get to him. Hunter and Niven’s romance plot gets an incomplete, even though Matter acts like dropping literally every other character and subplot can make the movie about the couple.
A Matter of Life and Death is a masterful, technical, creative marvel. It’s got rich, thoughtful performances in insightfully written roles. It’s also just a little bit too thin once it gets to the finish. But, damn, is it beautiful. The afterlife is black and white, and 1945 Earth is color. Glorious Technicolor. There are these transition shots between the two, where there’s a move from color and not, and they’re always exquisite. So a mixed bag, but wondrously so.