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Mike Leigh's Kiss of Death is an amusing black comedy, but it's also a fascinating character study that never simplifies its complex characters or settles for easy answers. David Threlfall gives an impressively controlled performance as Trevor, an undertaker's assistant. Trevor, like Colin, the character played by Tim Roth in Leigh's Meantime, could be seen as slow, but it's not so clear how intelligent he is. He has a bad habit of laughing inappropriately, and his deep, dorky chuckle doesn't denote intelligence, but he also reads and he has his moments. When called upon to take action to assist an old woman in a later scene, he's surprisingly competent. Trevor is, in short, about as close to a real person as one is likely to see in a film. With the brief glimpse the film gives into his rather mundane life, he's like a lot of people. We're not sure whether or not we like him. Trevor has his morbid side, and he can be cruel, but it isn't by design. He does what he does without thinking about the consequences. His relationship with the more surefooted Linda (Kay Adshead, like Threlfall, giving a richly layered performance in what could have been a stock role) creates a few humorously awkward scenes, but there's an underlying tension to the performances. Because Leigh gives us a glimpse of a more macabre side to Trevor's personality, we're never really certain what they're capable of doing to one another, and there's a deep-seated sadness to these characters' frustrated lives that undercuts the comedy. As is usually the case with Leigh's films, viewers looking for a neat linear narrative will not be satisfied, but those willing to spend a short time observing these interesting and unconventional characters may find it an edifying experience.

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WB4062 Kiss of Death DVD (1977/Mike Leigh) $19.95