In Uberto Pasolini’s somewhat too aptly named Still Life (not to be confused with Jia Zhang-ke’s), today’s offbeat “it” boy of British acting, Eddie Marsan, a natural specialist in meek and understated roles, plays John May, a London caseworker in the south central district of Kennington assigned to investigate those who die alone and unclaimed. The similarity between their lives and May’s is all too obvious. He dines alone in his council flat on a can of tuna, a slice of white bread, and an apple, and lives for his work. Thus when tossing the ashes would be enough, he insists on staging funerals for his cases even though friends and relatives either can’t be found or aren’t interested and he’s the only one who attends. The priest intones a eulogy he has penned using bits of information he’s gathered from the deceased’s dreary last digs. Photos of them he’s found he tips into his own personal home album book of the dead. When May’s department is downsized and he’s let go (after 22 years) he makes a grand project of his final case, a violent alcoholic called Billy Stoke who happens to have died in a council flat facing his own across a causeway.
The film is a celebration of the forgotten, marked by a cheerful miserablism that’s typically English; but some have found it condescending, and others consider the screenplay to be marred by an ending that celebrates May and his cases with a touch of the supernatural. The cool, gray, symmetrical style of the images fits nicely with Joh May’s tidiness, which may be a sign of OCD, or simply a love of order and a need to do what’s right and proper. Marsan’s performance is a marvel of understatement and subtlety, but his character and the story have too little depth. The symmetries and concern with order lead to repetitiousness. The coolness of the style looks and feels right, but there is no energy. Things liven up a little bit at the end, and so, too late, does John May, when he explores his final case so thoroughly he begins to connect with a woman, Billy Stoke’s estranged daughter, played by Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbey.” Still Life provides too few rewards and its latter part is too forced and sentimental. The score by Rachel Portman has been called (by David Rooney of Hollywood Reporter) not just “cloyingly saccharine” but “criminal.” Still, for students of screen acting it may all in a pinch be endurable for the performances of Eddie Marsan, and some of the other cast members who also do choice work.
DIRECTOR: UBERTO PASOLINI
STARS: EDDIE MARSAN, JOANNE FROGGATT,KAREN DRURY, NEIL D’SOUZA, TIM POTTER, PAUL ANDERSON, BRONSON WEBB
RUNTIME: 92 MIN
COUNTRY: UK, ITALY