As a modest council case worker in a London suburb, John May's job is to find the relatives of those found dead and alone. Despite his efforts, he is always on his own at their funerals, having to write their eulogies himself. When his boss intends to fire him, John decides to double his efforts on a case that will change his life and prove that he hasn't said his last word.
It’s considered the ultimate tragedy to die alone, unremembered and unmourned – and possibly left to rot in your council flat for weeks until your neighbours complain about the smell. (Don’t even mention being eaten by your pets.) Council worker John May (Eddie Marsan) is familiar with such scenarios. He’s made it his life’s work to give some dignity to the lost souls who pass away in his rather grey little English borough. It’s May’s job to track down any relatives or friends of the deceased and to ‘make the necessary arrangements’ for their burials or cremations.
A solitary and serious man with Spartan living habits (he eats a can of tuna and an apple for dinner every night), John May has turned his work into an artform. He collects clues about the dead (a necklace, a photograph, a Christmas card) and organises funerals that reflect their lives and their values – funerals where he carefully chooses the music, the coffin and the headstone, and writes the eulogy; funerals where he’s often the only attendant, along with the priest.
"You’d have to have a hard heart to be left completely unmoved."
After 22 years of service, May is told he’s being made redundant. ‘Funerals are for the living. The dead are dead,’ says his officious manager (Andrew Buchan). There’s one final case to be closed, however, and May sets doggedly about the business, tracing the loved ones of an elderly man, William Stokes, whose difficult temper and alcoholism led to his solitary death. In the course of investigations, May meets Stokes’ old friends and comrades, as well as his pretty daughter, Kelly (Joanne Froggatt). His own lonely life starts to light up with the connection.
Written and directed by Uberto Pasolini (producer of The Full Monty and Palookaville, and director of the Sri Lankan comedy Machan), Still Life is as modest and quiet a film as the title suggests, though it builds to a powerful and tear-jerking conclusion. Scenes are often long and static, and camera movement kept to a minimum, with a colour palette that’s strong on greys and blues, gradually warming as the story progresses. DoP Stefano Falivene keeps the focus firmly on Marsan’s humble countenance as we slowly come to realise that we, the audience, are working to solve John May’s case. Why is he so alone? Why is he so obsessed with honouring the dead? A beautifully performed and understated scene in which he sympathises with Kelly about being an orphan – ‘That’s not nice. Whenever it happens,’ he says with feeling – gives us a world of detail about his compassion, sensitivity, and his own possible life history. Perhaps the story’s only real flaw is the question of how such a lovely (though eccentric) man could really find himself so friendless and disconnected from the community he so fervently serves.
Some may find Still Life too slight on drama and action – and much depends on whether you consider Marsan’s character sweet or a touch creepy. But you’d have to have a hard heart to be left completely unmoved by the film’s accretion of details of lives left unfinished – underpants and pantyhose hung up to dry by the bath; face cream with the imprint of fingers in it, and a pillow still dented by the head that slept there. We’re all going to die, and the people and objects we touch will be all that’s left. Funerals are for the living, says this quietly ambitious and thoughtful character study, and therefore our own dignity depends upon the way we mark the passing of others.