Dir: Alison Peebles. UK. 2003. 104 mins
Material that might seem hackneyed or maudlin in less skilful hands emerges as a moving, emotion-charged drama in Afterlife. The story of a journalist torn between professional ambition and family responsibilities is distinguished by intelligent writing, sensitive direction and stand-out performances from Kevin McKidd and Down's Syndrome actress Paula Sage. A popular winner of the Standard Life Audience Award at Edinburgh, its growing profile has already secured invitations to a number of international Festivals as well as a London showcase screening. An enterprising, nurturing distributor should be able to secure the film a niche audience on a par with some of the more modestly performing titles of Ken Loach or Michael Winterbottom.
The first project made under the New Found Films scheme backed by Scottish Screen, Scottish Television and Grampian Television, Afterlife is also a first feature for many of the key figures involved including producer Catherine Aitken, director Alison Peebles and rising screenwriting talent Andrea Gibb. Both Peebles and Gibb have extensive acting experience and Gibb has a younger sister with Down's syndrome. Their past lives show in a film that is uniformly well acted and graced by the kind of understanding, affection and humour that can only be drawn from personal experience.
A dominant figure at Edinburgh with an acclaimed performance in 16 Years Of Alcohol to contrast with his work in Afterlife, Kevin McKidd plays self-centred journalist Kenny Brogan. On the brink of an international career, he is called home to Scotland when his mother May (Duncan) injures herself in a fall. It is Kenny who must assume some of the responsibility for the care of his sister Roberta (Sage) who has Down's Syndrome. Investigating a Swiss organisation that specialises in assisted suicide, he is unwilling to sacrifice an exclusive interview that represents his big break. He takes Roberta with him on his trip discovering how exasperating and endearing she can be. Then, the responsibility threatens to become permanent when it is revealed that his mother is terminally ill with cancer.
Set the challenge of making a feature on a budget of just £250,000, the creative team behind Afterlife overcome any financial restraints by focusing on the human dilemma at the core of the story.
The film certainly has its limitations but it succeeds in its appeal to the heart, the lack of sentimentality only enhancing its ability to bring tears to the eyes. McKidd is rock solid at the centre of the film and surrounded by seasoned professionals like Lindsay Duncan and Shirley Henderson as his sceptical girlfriend. The revelation is Paula Sage who gives a fully-rounded performance as the sassy, sarcastic sister that the mother regards as her greatest legacy to her son. Ultimately, Afterlife may sit comfortably on a small screen but it has enough virtues, craft and honesty to merit a chance of a theatrical life.
Prod co/sales: Gabriel Films
Prod: Catherine Aitken
Assoc prod: Ros Borland
Scr: Andrea Gibb
Cinematography: Grant Scott Cameron
Prod des: Jacqueline Smith
Ed: Colin Monie
Music: Paddy Cunnen
Main cast: Kevin McKidd, Lindsay Duncan, Paula Sage, Shirley Henderson, James Laurenson, Isla Blair.