|UK Release Date||6th February 2015|
|Reviewed||8th February 2015|
We’re huge fans of Eddie Marsan here. He’s cropped up in quite a range of movies over the last twenty years and he’s always a highlight, usually as a quirky bit part player. It’s about time then that he started to appear in more central roles (he’s great in the upcoming X+Y) and if ever a movie was perfectly cast, it’s this one.
Still Life is Uberto Pasolini’s second feature as director, though he is of course most well know for being the producer of UK mega-hit, The Full Monty. And he has chanced upon a wonderful hook for this, painstakingly low-key, effort. Marsan is John May, a civil servant working at the fictional London borough council of Kennington. May is charged with looking after people who have died alone. He picks through their belongings, speaks to anyone who may have known them and, having exhausted all routes, is the sole attendee at their funeral. It’s a profoundly sad line of thought and one which this movie gives us plenty of space to consider.
In order to hang this onto some kind of plot, Pasolini has May laid off when the council merges services with another borough and, left with one final case, May is determined to give his last charge a decent send off. This being a movie of course, this leads to an almost romantic situation with the deceased daughter…
But that’s not to say Pasolini is interested in giving this one the Hollywood treatment, in fact, he heads off in an entirely different direction. Painted in muted shades, May’s London is a ritual of working in his basement office alone, having minimal conversation with landlords disinterested in the expiration of their tenants and finally, having dinner alone (tuna and toast). Apparently lacking any relatives or friends, we never see May outside his ritual and we’re left with the assumption that their is nothing beyond this apart from his habit of collecting a photograph of the people he buries in a distinctly old fashioned photo album (a tear inducing tribute to those he has processed to their final destination).
Marsan is perfect for this role. Hair carefully combed over, bland suit and tie immaculately in place and everything on his desk lined up just so, he portrays May as a man who doesn’t for a second think he is missing out on anything in life. A deliberately old fashioned man - he refers to his colleagues as Mr or Mrs, no first names, May brings what is, sadly, probably a likewise old fashioned work ethic to his job. If there is evidence of a religion in his charge’s past, he will honour this with the relevant funeral arrangements, contributing inevitably to his downfall as he spends too much on expensive funerals rather than brutally efficient cremations. Marsan’s gradual change (transformation implies far too much drama) to the different man we see later having coffee with the daughter of Stokes, the violent Falklands veteran that constitutes his final case, is impressive in its subtlety. As a man of very few words, the acting challenge must have been significant but Marsan portrays it perfectly, this is never a man who is going to leap out of bed one day to take on the world.
He is well supported by a decent script that avoids using any number of easy routes when it comes to May's journey. Pasolini (also on writing duties) is deft in his use of a variety of Stokes' friends, ex-colleagues and family. Each adds something small but significant to the picture May is building of a man who lived a far from perfect life and ultimately ended it alcoholic and alone in a flat opposite the one May occupies. Stokes is fleshed out well in these interactions and despite never appearing on screen, we get a good image of a man who made an impact, for good or ill. The script also avoids trying to make us feel sorry for May - this isn't a guy who thinks he is missing out and desperately wants to be somebody else - this is just who he is.
Pasolini, for the most part, treads a good line between the weight of his theme and depressing us completely. In fact, to his absolute credit (although some of this may have been down to the absolutely charming Q&A with the man himself after), I came out of the screening looking at things in a much better light. I’m not claiming this is going to have any lasting effect but this is a movie about something significant. The inevitability of being dragged off into the void at a mostly random moment is pretty horrifying in itself, the thought that when that moment comes, there won’t even be anyone to celebrate your meagre time on this planet… well, that’s genuinely mortifying. Pasolini presents this to us but not in such a way as to leave us reeling but more pondering how society treats its dead and how that reflects on all of us.
I say ‘for the most part’ because for some reason, Pasolini does his absolute best to undermine all this with probably the most sentimental closing shot I’ve seen in a movie for some time. I won’t spoil it but suffice to say my eyes nearly rolled back and out of my head. It’s a shame because this is a genuinely affecting little movie. And little is the right word. Still Life underplays everything, even the frequent moments of humour, so what we’re left with is how much the central theme affects you personally. Marsan is superb and as an exploration of one, very ordinary, man’s journey outside his bubble, this is a movie well worth your time. It will also leave you pondering some very big things, especially the next time you walk past a cemetery.