England’s Michael Powell was a rare twofer as a director – both a great visual stylist and one of filmmaking’s most adept and original storytellers. While movie history played some very nasty tricks on Powell, depriving him of his rightful status alongside such contemporaries as Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, his cult continues to grow. Indeed, after a day or two watching this package of two rare films making their long-overdue DVD debuts, you might be joining me for some genius-spiked Kool-Aid.
The first of half of this stunning double bill is 1946’s “A Matter of Life and Death,” one of a number of classics Powell made with Emeric Pressburger, his long-time filmmaking partner with whom he shared writing, producing, and directing credits. Originally released in the U.S. as “Stairway to Heaven,” this post-war romantic fantasy features a young David Niven as a downed RAF pilot whose apparently impossible survival and subsequent love affair with a sweet-natured American (Kim Hunter) arouses celestial interference from the heavenly powers that be – or, perhaps, that what he’s imagining, as a brilliant neurologist (Powell/Pressburger favorite Roger Livesey) grows increasingly concerned about his apparent hallucinations. This might sound like familiar romantic comedy-drama material, but there is a reason this was Powell’s personal favorite of all his films. It is a cinematic brew so rich and strange that on some levels it feels like a rom-com “Pan’s Labyrinth”; this one sneaks up on you.
“Age of Consent” isn’t on the same exalted level, but despite a shaky start and some unfortunate choices, it’s still aces. This rapturous, and often very funny, 1969 tale of initially semi-platonic May-December love stars then-newcomer Helen Mirren (“The Queen,” “Prime Suspect”), as a 17-year-old Aussie island waif, and aging star James Mason as a painter in need of inspiration. Far less giggle or squirm inducing than you could possibly imagine, “Age of Consent” appears to have been the first major-studio film to feature significant nudity (provided, of course, by Ms. Mirren). Despite hitting it big in Australia, it was butchered for its worldwide release and has been almost impossible to see ever since. Fortunately, this DVD does Powell’s last feature proud, including charming reminiscences from the now Queen-aged Ms. Mirren and Powell’s close late-life friend and number one fan, Martin Scorsese.