The 100 best British films
Time Out counts down the best British films, as chosen by the film industry
By Dave Calhoun, Tom Huddleston and David Jenkins, with Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Adam Lee Davies, Gareth Evans, Paul Fairclough and Wally Hammond. Explore the individual top tens of every contributor.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Dirs Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey)
It’s a wonderful afterlife
This is one of Powell and Pressburger’s most imaginative and thoroughly enjoyable films, but it's also one of Britain’s most substantial fantasy films, in that for all its visual invention, wit, romantic flair and sense of fun, it is most definitely about something.
Actually, of course, it’s about a number of things: the improbable love affair between a British pilot forced to bale out of his plane and the American girl who takes his mayday call; the long-tricky ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, strained during the later years of World War Two when the Americans were ‘over here’; and it’s perhaps even to some degree about the likewise uneasy relations between the practitioners of Britain’s documentary-realist tradition and those of the rather more flamboyantly ‘arty’ strand of filmmaking as perpetrated by Powell & Pressburger. (It may not be accidental that our quotidian earthly existence is shown in colour while the fanciful realm of the hereafter is consigned to the monochrome favoured by Grierson et al.)
Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s about exactly what it claims to be: the inevitably symbiotic relationship between life and death, which are in the end all part and parcel of the same thing. The heaven in the film not only reflects the need of many to believe in an afterlife where justice might finally prevail; it is also made quite explicit that it’s a dreamworld, the construct of the poet-pilot’s brain, in traumatic shock after he unexpectedly survives the plunge from his flaming cockpit. Quite dazzling. GA