In Still Life, John May (Eddie Marsan) plans funerals for strangers. He carefully picks out music for services that nobody attends; he writes eulogies for people no one else cares to memorialize; he pays his respects, alone, as caskets are lowered into the ground; and then he goes home to an empty apartment to eat tuna and dry toast and flip through a photo album of all the other lonely souls he’s put to rest.
For more than 22 years, John has worked for the South London council, trying to track down relatives of people who have died alone. He’s earnest in his efforts, though not often successful. People live and die alone for a reason, you see. But when John learns that his position with the council has become redundant, he makes it his mission to close his last case successfully. And it’s a case that hits particularly close to home—literally. When he gets the call that a man has been found dead in an apartment in John’s own complex, he realizes that this could be his fate someday, too. So John sets out to find the estranged family and friends of his reclusive, alcoholic neighbor, Billy Stoke, and convince them that Billy’s worth remembering.
John’s whole life is his job. He’s a meticulous and careful man who spends his days dealing with the affairs of the dead, at the expense of living his own life. His is a dull and dreary existence—something director Uberto Pasolini makes sure we understand. There is nothing vibrant in his protagonist’s life: He works at a white computer on a white desk and drinks from a white coffee cup; he lives in an apartment painted all white with white appliances and white furniture; he walks through grey streets, under grey skies, in grey suits. Pasolini practically beats us over the head with beige—but by doing so, we know from the get-go that John is destined to find some color, some life, in his life. And when he does, it comes in the form of a blonde in a pink sweater.
After conducting some investigative work that would make Poirot proud, John eventually tracks down Kelly Stoke (Joanne Froggatt), the daughter Billy abandoned but never forgot. Along the way, John learns more about his wild and unpredictable neighbor, and, perhaps taking a page out of Billy’s book, John soon allows himself to loosen up a little—he drinks hot chocolate instead of his regular black tea, swigs whiskey from the bottle and even skips work. He develops a fast and unlikely friendship with Kelly, and his life begins to brighten (as does his wardrobe).
Admittedly, it’s a predictable storyline, as exciting to watch as it is to read, saved only by Eddie Marsan, who is absolutely superb as the large-hearted loner. While Pasolini’s direction and script feel heavy-handed, Marsan still manages to deliver a compelling and understated performance. Even when the film drags at times, almost predictably so, Marsan is always interesting to watch. Marsan has the ability to melt into every role he adopts, leaving behind all the others that came before it. In other words, when I saw Marsan play an abusive, cruel husband in Tyrannosaur, I thought I’d never be able to see him as anything else, but within the first few moments of Still Life, every memory of that role was forgotten. While fans of Downton Abbey, might be excited to see Golden Globe-winner Joanne Froggatt somewhere other than the country estate, her screen time is limited. This is Marsan’s movie from start to finish—and it’s all the better for it.
Director: Uberto Pasolini
Written by: Uberto Pasolini
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt
Released: Jan. 16th, 2015
Regan Reid is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter.