While exploring the relationship between a brother and his disabled sister, British director Alison Peebles presents an engaging study into the pros and cons of euthanasia. On the face of it, not a cheerful premise, but don't slit your wrists just yet because Afterlife is ultimately a life-affirming tale. Unfortunately Peebles - whose career was made in theatre and television - offers few cinematic moments, trapped instead inside the grimy confines of a 70s-style kitchen sink drama.
The story kicks off in uncertain territory as journalist Kenny Brogan (Kevin McKidd) investigates an ethically dubious - and downright unlawful - mercy killing perpetrated by Professor Wilkinshaw (James Laurenson). But the conspiracy plot quickly gives way to family drama when Kenny drops in on his cranky mother May (Lindsay Duncan) and little sister Roberta (Paula Sage), who's afflicted with Down Syndrome.
"A HINT OF CRUISE AND HOFFMAN IN RAIN MAN"
May pleads with Kenny to devote more time to Roberta, but Kenny has plans for a new life abroad with girlfriend Ruby (Shirley Henderson) and can't afford the emotional baggage. However, when May reveals that she's dying of cancer, Kenny is forced to re-assess his priorities.
This is a sensitively acted piece, chiefly a credit to McKidd and newcomer Sage, who successfully bridge the gap between the outward imperviousness and hidden vulnerability that marks each of their characters. There's even a hint of Cruise and Hoffman in Rain Man as they take to the road and wind each other up.
Roberta's secret gift for the arts is one of a few irritating clichés, but thankfully Peebles avoids the hankie-soaking sentimentality that often degrades films about mental and terminal illness. On the contrary, she occasionally pulls the camera back too far, so that by the time she zooms in for the finale, the dramatic pulse is already in danger of flatlining. Even though it stops short of a real emotional punch, Afterlife remains an involving yarn that speaks to the mind as well as the soul.