A potentially melodramatic tale about a just-deceased woman’s effort to resolve her untidy life is treated in understated, schematic fashion in “Kiss of Life.” This first feature from British writer-director and Lodz Film School grad Emily Young, whose shorts “Second Hand” and “The Tower of Babel” made a mark on the fest circuit, is emotionally nuanced and technically accomplished, but feels more like an academic exercise than a full-bodied movie; effect is akin to an M. Night Shyamalan picture without the commercial instincts. Elaborately worked out in terms of structure and editing, pic keeps spinning the same wheels to the extent that, once it’s into its final half-hour, the impression grows of a good short extended beyond its warranted length. Fests and tony tube venues may embrace this tasteful, subdued effort, which lacks the verve, as well as selling points, for theatrical success.
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“Kiss of Life” is dedicated to Katrin Cartlidge, the vital actress who died just as she was set to start work on the picture. Her replacement in the leading role, Lithuanian thesp Ingeborga Dapkunaite, best known for her work in “Burnt by the Sun,” plays Helen, a London housewife barely coping with her two kids and doddering dad while husband John (Peter Mullan) is away on a long aid mission in an unnamed Eastern European country.
Sensing a new urgency in his wife’s pleas that he return, John begins a perilous journey home while Helen goes about her daily routine. But it’s Helen whose number is up this day, as she’s killed by a hit-and-run driver in full view of her boy after dropping him at school.
So as John, unaware of his wife’s fate, negotiates his way by car, truck, horse-drawn wagon and foot across a brutal landscape of thuggish soldiers and displaced villagers, Helen is seen arising from the pavement, walking away as if the accident had never happened and returning home, where her spirit-self replays, re-imagines and reassesses her domestic life in a way that will allow her to take leave of this world with serenity, rather than with her family members at loose ends.
Which is exactly where they are in reality. With their father gone indefinitely, as far as they know, the bereft children — early teen Kate (Millie Findlay) and younger Telly (James E. Martin) — are forced to depend upon granddad (David Warner), who proves useless, but does produce some old 8mm footage he took that reveals the family in happier times.
Intricate editing strategies connect “actual” domestic events with Helen’s wish-fulfilling adjustments of reality and John’s journey, all of which feature abrupt spasms of drama but are mostly dominated by observational moments that suggest rather than spell out their import. Young cuts away from all the “big” moments that would normally trigger major outbursts, such as the doctor delivering the bad news to the kids about their mother, while favoring quiet revelations of emotion, such as having the painfully withdrawn Telly calling for his absent mommy and daddy during the night.
In Mullan’s subtle reading of the do-gooding husband, thesp subtly suggests that John’s long sojourn abroad is to an extent a question of a need to escape his family; one of the film’s best scenes has him hitting it off with a girl at a roadside cafe during a delay at a checkpoint, only to be suddenly paged to depart just as a quick fling looks to be in the cards.
Although she has an agreeable screen presence, Dapkunaite doesn’t appear as beaten down by life as the material suggests Helen might be; she lacks evidence of an inner wound, as well as a gravity that might have made the role more moving. And the actress has a tendency to smile too much, as if she wants to be liked above all.
Ending has a muted effectiveness, but pic’s repetitive techniques, somber blue/green/gray hues and unvarying hushed tone has worn thin before it arrives. Strings-dominated score by Murray Gold sets a mournful mood, reinforced by the delicately expressive tech work.