Kiss of Life Review

Helen (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) lives in London with her father (David Warner), her daughter Kate (Millie Findlay) and son Telly (James E. Martin) and the stress of juggling everyone’s demands on her time is getting to her. Her husband John (Peter Mullan) is an aid worker in a war-torn part of Eastern Europe who decides to return home. As he does so, becoming out of contact for the while, Helen is hit by a car and killed. As the family struggles to come to terms with their loss, as John journeys home through dangerous terrain, Helen herself is caught midway between life and death.

The theme of someone who has died but not yet moved on is not a new one, though it’s become a current one – possibly post 9/11 consolation? In particular, there’s Alice Sebold’s fine novel The Lovely Bones, which at the time of writing (July 2004) has just sold its millionth British paperback and a film version is in development. Emily Young’s influences are further afield like that. Although English, she’s a graduate of the celebrated Film School in £ódŸ, Poland, whose alumni include Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Krzysztof Zanussi and Krzysztof Kieœlowski. The last-named certainly seems to loom over this film, particularly his later films such as The Double Life of Véronique and Three Colours: Blue. It’s worth mentioning that Kieœlowski, who started out as a documentary filmmaker, refined his style over an eighteen-year feature-making career. Young, at least on this showing, isn’t at that level.

Kiss of Life went under the working title Helen of Peckham and was to star Katrin Cartlidge, but she tragically died suddenly just before production was to begin. (The film is dedicated to her memory.) Ingeborga Dapkunaite is a Lithuanian actress, though based in London. She’s given fine performances in Russian films such as Burnt by the Sun and the title role of Katia Ismailova, but in English she seems awkward as a London housewife. This also necessitates David Warner being given an accent to convince as her father. On the other hand, Peter Mullan gives his usual sturdy performance but for most of the scene he’s solo with nothing to act against. The film is also annoyingly vague on certain details, such as which war zone John is working in. (The film was shot in Croatia and Bosnia.) It’s commendable for Young to want to understate things, for example not to wring out scenes of grief, but it makes the film flat and undernourished. Kiss of Life is not a long feature, coming in under ninety minutes, but you can’t help feeling it would have been much more effective as a short.

No complaints about Artificial Eye’s DVD transfer, which is anamorphic in a ratio of 1.85:1. The film was shot on Fuji film stock, which gives a less bold, more pastel look to the film. The DVD transfer is slightly soft throughout, but I’m prepared to allow that as Young and her DP Wojciech Szepel’s intention. (For the record, I hadn’t seen the film before receiving a review copy.) Black levels and shadow detail are as they should be.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, though it’s mostly mono with the surrounds used for Murray Gold’s music score and some ambient sounds. Not an especially adventurous mix but it does its job. Dialogue is always clear. Unfortunately for the hard of hearing or anyone likely to have difficulties with Dapkunaite’s Lithuanian accent or Mullan’s Scottish one, there are no subtitles. This appears to be policy for Artificial Eye’s English-language output (admittedly, the minority of their DVD releases) and I wish they’d reconsider it. There are eleven chapter spots.

The main extra is a commentary by Emily Young, Wojciech Szepel and associate producer Christopher Collins. This is a worthwhile listen, though it’s more than a little dry (Szepel’s main contributions deal with technical issues).The theatrical trailer is in 1.85:1 anamorphic and runs 1:44. It seems to be selling the film to the arthouse crowd rather than a mainstream one.

Two short films by Young are included. Tower of Babel (or if you prefer, Wie¿a Babel, as the credits are in both English and Polish) was made at film school. It’s a documentary about sculptor. Henryk Kowalczyk, deaf since the age of five and who went blind at thirty-four. The film has some burned-in English captions but none of the Polish-language speech is subtitled. The visual quality is a little rough and grainy, but I suspect that’s due to its origins, which look like 16mm. It runs 13:35 and is full-frame. Second Hand dates from 1999 and is a co-prouction between the Polish film school and the British one in Beaconsfield. It’s a rather arty fictional piece set in London with English dialogue. It’s 1.85:1 non-anamorphic (probably originated on 35mm), running 16:36, and the visual quality is almost as good as that of the feature. Both shorts have Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtracks. The extras are completed by biographies and filmographies for the principal cast and crew.

Kiss of Life is a film which shows much more promise than fulfillment, though you have to give Young and her cast and crew credit for getting an arthouse movie made in Britain, especially at a time when it’s harder than ever to get such films made. The film is certainly worth a look, and Artificial Eye’s DVD is mostly up to their usual high standards, but you’re likely to want to see what Young can do with her next feature.

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