Dir: Emily Young. UK-Fr. 2003. 86mins

A slender but soulful feature debut from award-winning shorts director Emily Young, Kiss Of Life attempts to grapple with the big issues of life, death, love and family. An overly cerebral approach to what could have been quite emotionally-charged material means that the film feels distant and chilly which will undoubtedly limit its commercial appeal. The presence of prize-winning performers Peter Mullan and Ingeborga Dapkunaite should boost European interest in a first feature with originality and a good deal of healthy ambition in its favour. Further festival exposure seems guaranteed although theatrical pickings may be slim. Aside from a recent pick-up by Artificial Eye, which releases it in the UK on Dec 27, it has also been sold to Eurospace (Japan), Intercinema (Russia) and Gemini Films (Russia) among others.

Collaborating well with her actors, full of bright ideas and working out with the tired British staples of fluffy romantic comedy and tough-guy violence, Young shows that she has much to offer if she can properly organise those ideas and develop them into a more fully-rounded and emotionally-mature piece. Her first film should prove to be an important stepping stone towards better things.

Filmed under the much less appealing title of Helen Of Peckham, Kiss Of Life is another attempt to emphasise the notion that life is precious and cannot be taken for granted. A wife and mother, Helen (Dapkunaite) is barely coping with the domestic responsibilities of two children and a demanding father (Warner). Her husband John (Mullan) is an aid-worker in Eastern Europe who has become an absent figure in their lives. 'There are people counting on me here,' he declares in one awkward telephone conversation as if his own loved ones did not feel exactly the same way.

Then, Helen is hit by a car and is killed. But her story does not end there. Trapped in a kind of limbo outside of time, she is granted an opportunity to deal with the unfinished business of her life and her family relations.

Travelling by car, cart and train, John struggles to make the long journey home to London unaware that his wife is dead. Running along parallel lines to the journey, we witness Helen's encounters with her family as she spends time with her daughter Kate (Findlay), comforts her son Telly (Martin) and is generally able to reconcile them all to the fact that she is no longer with them. Even John is allowed a sense of forgiveness for the times wasted and the vast spaces that had recently separated them.

Filled with interesting ideas and possibilities, Kiss Of Life struggles to make the most of them or to justify its feature-length running time. There is the lingering suspicion that a decent-length short could easily have contained all that Young has to say. Splitting the story between John's earthbound journey and Helen's metaphysical explorations dilutes the focus of the film, especially when both elements are virtually self-contained and the focus shifts again within the family and within the boundaries of past and present. There are clusters of moments with all the principal characters and home movie footage of happy family days, but it stubbornly resists building into a persuasive or coherent overall vision.

We never feel as if we know enough about the family as a unit or individuals to be engulfed by the tragedy that befalls them or stirred by the chances of reconciliation that present themselves. Young seems to have gone out of her way to avoid sentimentality or falling into the more comforting friendly ghost territory of the likes of Truly, Madly, Deeply. She seems to be striving for something more meaningful along the lines of a Kieslowski-like exploration of faith, hope and the randomness of human experience. But she does not quite pull it all together and endow it with the intensity and utter conviction that such an approach demands.

A lack of variation in the pace and toning of the film is problematic, although there are compensations in finely crafted contributions from cinematographer Wojciech Szepel and composer Murray Gold. The performances are the making of the piece. Veteran UK actor David Warner is wasted in the role of the irascible and rather bemused father but both Millie Findlay and James E Martin successfully negotiate the pitfalls of child-actor cuteness or stroppy caricature to create believable flesh-and-blood offspring.

A last minute replacement for the late Katrin Cartlidge, Dapkunaite has her best English-language role as Helen and Peter Mullan brings his battered charisma and unerring instinct for the truth of a moment to bear on the guilt-ridden husband who has the chance to realise that love is all that matters.

Prod cos: Wild Horses Films, Haut et Court
Int'l sales:
Celluloid Dreams
UK dist:
Artificial Eye
Exec prods:
Cat Villiers, Chiara Menage, Paul Trijbits, David M Thompson, Bill Allan
Gayle Griffiths
Assoc prod:
Christopher Collins
Wojciech Szepel
Prod des:
Jane Morton
David Charap
Murray Gold
Main cast:
Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Peter Mullan, Millie Findlay, James E Martin, David Warner