Edinburgh International Film Festival 2003
EDINBURGH, Scotland -- A story about a young woman with Down syndrome whose mother is dying of cancer might be a candidate for a depressing but syrupy movie-of-the-week, yet "AfterLife" is nothing of the kind. It's a sturdy and unsentimental feature that manages to be life-affirming while dealing with handicaps both emotional and physical and grappling with issues of quality of life and mortality.
A tearjerker with lots of smile-making humor, "AfterLife" is a crowd-pleaser that could well hook into the "Bend It Like Beckham" audience with similar results. It won the Standard Life Audience Award here.
May Brogan (Lindsay Duncan) is a tough-minded Scottish widow who has favored her daughter Roberta (Paula Sage
) over her older son Kenny (Kevin McKidd
) because she has Down syndrome. Fiercely protective of her daughter, May builds a life of security for Roberta, with routines of TV soap operas and local bingo. Kevin is a successful and ambitious journalist on the verge of winning a plum job in New York. Their lives are changed when May first fractures her leg and then discovers that she has life-threatening cancer.
Screenwriter Andrea Gibb and first-time director Alison Peebles
cleverly establish the different path that Kevin has chosen as he avidly pursues a story about a professor associated with a Swiss clinic named AfterLife that provides assisted suicide to terminal patients. The professor's wife committed suicide, and Kevin suspects that he helped her die. Getting the story will make his career.
The clash between Kevin's ambitions and May's demands that he must help his sister set up the conflict that drives the story. It plays out with unexpected turns and a very satisfying twist at the end.
McKidd ("Trainspotting", "Topsy-Turvy") makes a believably thick-skinned reporter, keen to fulfill his ambitions and not happy at all about taking responsibility for his younger sister. Duncan ("Mansfield Park") forsakes her elegant beauty as the single-minded Glaswegian mum who is prepared to go to any lengths to protect her vulnerable daughter.
As Roberta, Sage is a revelation. She has Down syndrome, too, and her portrayal is essential to the film's success. Overweight, stubborn, awkward and a little spoiled, Roberta is a character played rigorously, without seeking sympathy, and Sage makes her the wholly captivating heart of the movie.
Gibb's script allows time for key supporting roles: James Laurenson
, as the professor, and Shirley Henderson, as Kenny's art curator girlfriend, Ruby, both shine. Gibb's humor often sparkles with unexpected pleasures. Kenny is always telling Roberta that he'll "just be two minutes." When he leaves her in his car while he goes into the art gallery for a quickie with Ruby, Roberta is distraught. Kenny swears to his distressed sister that he was no longer than 41?2 minutes, and Ruby adds a dry aside: "He was, trust me".
Small gems like that occur throughout the film. For once in a film, the journalistic scenes ring true, and so do the encounters May has with her doctors. Her feelings for her late husband are also well drawn. He rode a motorcycle and sidecar, and images of Kenny first riding his bike on a beach with the sidecar empty and later with Roberta aboard screaming with joy are meaningful and affecting, just like the rest of the movie.
A Gabriel Films production for Scottish TV, Grampian TV and Scottish Film
Director: Alison Peebles
Screenwriter: Andrea Gibb
Producer: Catherine Aitken
Associate Producer: Ros Borland
Director of photography: Grant Scott
Production designer: Jacqueline Smith
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Costume designer: Rhona Russell
Editor: Colin Monie
May Brogan: Lindsay Duncan
Kenny Brogan: Kevin McKidd
Roberta Brogan: Paula Sage
Professor Wilkinson: James Laurenson
Ruby Percy: Shirley Henderson
Lucy O'Dea: Fiona Bell
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating