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February 4, 2015
Who will attend your funeral? We all imagine crowds of friends and family there as we sink into the ground or turn from skin and bones into ash, but for many there is no such goodbye. In Still Life we watch Kensington Council worker John May (Eddie Marsan) go about his daily business, trying to find the next of kin of people who have died alone, and giving worthy send-offs to those who would not have had a funeral organised for them.
John’s job is a morbid one, and as the film begins we see that he frequently attends funerals alone, listening to eulogies he has written and music he has chosen, based on the limited knowledge he has been able to accumulate about the dead. When other funerals take place nearby, he looks on enviously at their swelled ranks. Moments like this lend a lovely element of dark humour to a quiet, thoughtful film.
John is serious and detached, and leads a monochrome life of organised tedium: his every evening meal seems to be tuna, toast, and an apple; he looks three times before he crosses the road; and he keeps a scrapbook of the dead people whose lives he concludes. Though John meets a large number of people, we never once see him shake anyone’s hand nor make any human contact; it is as though he is looking through them, seeing not the living but only the dead.
Because of the assiduity with which he carries out his work, John is “let go” from the employ of the council: he is spending too long on each case, and costing the council money because he insists that there ought to be a funeral for those whose next of kin cannot, or cannot be bothered, to arrange one. His boss (Andrew Buchan) says that it will be good for him to take on a job “where people are alive for a change”.
John has one remaining case – that of William Stoke, an alcoholic who died in the flat opposite his own. Discovering whom Stoke was, and trying to give the man a fitting send-off, consumes John, but it also changes him. Released from the confines of his job, he gradually becomes a different man: where once he would only have had tea, he tries hot chocolate; after tracking down a former girlfriend of Stoke’s in a Whitby chip shop, he has a fish supper; and he drinks whiskey with two homeless men who are able to tell him much about Stoke. Clichéd though it may be, investigating the life of a dead man brings John to life.
Beautiful moments, often almost invisible, litter the film: at one stage John has placed his briefcase on the overhead train compartment, but he is clearly uncomfortable with his possessions even this far away from him, so he reaches up and places the briefcase back again on his lap, like a child clutching a teddy bear to himself. At another he is witness to some ice cream falling off the back of a lorry; in the next scene, having failed to return the ice cream, he is eating Häagen-Dazs alone in his flat – an unusual extravagance for a plain and humble man.
Given that Marsan has about 96% of the film’s lines, Still Life‘s success hinges largely on his ability. Fortunately, one of the country’s most underrated actors gives a typically magisterial performance, endowing but not weighing down the character with obsessive habits and underdeveloped social graces. It is a joy to watch John turn from grey to colour and begin to develop meaningful relationships, not least of all with William Stoke’s daughter Kelly (Joanne Foggart). Watching John skive off work in order to pursue his final case is immensely satisfying; we know enough about the man by this stage to know that this is very likely the first day he has ever skived off in his life.
The film is not without its flaws. Though Marsan is predictably superb, some of the supporting actors lend the film an air of amateur dramatics, which is unfortunate, given that the film, almost entirely action-free, depends very heavily on dialogue being delivered convincingly. Writer and director Uberto Pasolini was clearly working with a small budget for Still Life; for the most part this matters not at all, and it is refreshing to watch a film in which virtually nothing at all happens; but one could argue that the tight purse-strings betray themselves in some of the minor performances.
“Strange job you’ve got,” says one character to John at one point. “All those lives…” Because it is a strange job, this is also something of a strange film. It is fascinating to watch John piece together the lives of others, and devote himself to ensuring the ribbons of their lives are tied as neatly and as respectfully as possible. Occasionally the treatment of these elements is heavy-handed: we do not, for example, need to see quite so many lingering shots of dead strangers’ photographs; nor does the film need to be wrapped up in so saccharine a manner. For the most part, however, the subject matter and the performances make Still Life an intriguing and gently moving 87 minutes.
Still Life is released in UK cinemas on February 6th