Michael Powell's 1946 afterlife melodrama A Matter Of Life And Death has been firmly established in the pantheon of great British films, and boasts a sterling reputation as a puckish, astonishingly stylish contemplation of U.S./UK relations over the centuries. Powell's 1969 erotic travelogue Age Of Consent, on the other hand, has been little-seen and is indifferently regarded. It's Powell's final feature film, about an Australian artist mentoring his muse, and it's knocked askew by broad comedy and awkward stabs at anti-establishment snark.
So while both films are distinctly Powell, in that they're unlike any other movie ever made, A Matter Of Life And Death is the clear prize of Columbia's two-disc "The Films Of Michael Powell" set. Co-written with Powell's longtime artistic partner Emeric Pressburger, A Matter Of Life And Death (a.k.a. Stairway To Heaven in America) stars David Niven as an RAF bomber pilot whose plane crashes, leaving him in need of a brain operation. While under anesthetic, Niven winds up in a celestial courtroom, arguing that he should be allowed to live for the sake of his true love, American Kim Hunter. A lot of Life And Death is about the differences between Brits and Yanks, but it's also about the similarities between the world beyond and our own, which has its own mystical enchantments. (In a sly bit of blasphemy, Powell shoots heaven in hazy black and white, and the real world in lush color.) But more than anything, Life And Death is about Powell playing with cinema by goofing around with freeze-frames and avant-garde interludes in the interest of creating an onscreen reality more vivid than life itself.
Age Of Consent is nowhere near as visionary, but it's still often beautiful—especially in its restored version, which includes a previously jettisoned score by Peter Sculthorpe and multiple scenes featuring a young Helen Mirren in the buff. Mirren plays a simple beachcomber who enchants celebrated painter James Mason and rekindles his muse in that common embrace-the-wild hippie-era fashion. But Powell turns the concept on its head a bit, by spending a lot of time with the hairy, dirty, fleshy Mirren as she gradually loses her girlishness and discovers a sense of self-worth. Age Of Consent flops whenever it brings in shrill comic villains Jack MacGowran and Neva Carr-Glynn, but that's mainly because the audience wants these braying buffoons to stop spoiling the inspirational solitude of the sea. Like Powell's other middle-of-nowhere dramas The Edge Of The World, I Know Where I'm Going!, and Black Narcissus, Age Of Consent is best when it ditches its plot and indulges in pure cinematic sensuality. Then, to quote Mason, "It's better than good, it's alive."
Key features: Affectionate intros by Martin Scorsese, interviews with Powell's Age Of Consent collaborators (including a charming Mirren), and well-researched, conversational commentaries by Ian Christie and Kent Jones.