Title: Still Life
Director: Uberto Pasolini
Major Players: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt
Out Of Five: Four
It’s a crowded week for new releases. There’ll be plenty of ballyhoo surrounding The Interview – yes, we’re getting it in cinemas! – plus the Martin Luther King drama Selma and even Shaun The Sheep. There’s also a small British offering which could be overlooked all too easily, but shouldn’t be. Still Life.
It’s a film that especially strikes a chord if you’re one of the increasing numbers of single people. Strange as it might sound, there are people out there whose job it is to arrange funerals for people who die leaving nobody behind – or at least appear to. It’s also their job to establish if there are any living relatives.
At the fictional Kennington Council, the job belongs to John May (Eddie Marsan) and it’s a job he clearly cares about. But he does more than the job requires, choosing the music for the funerals, writing the eulogy for the vicar, attending the funeral and even deciding on whether a burial or cremation should follow. It’s always a burial. Sometimes he’s also able to track down the deceased’s relatives, although the results can vary. Having dedicated himself to the job for a number of years, he’s suddenly told he’s being made redundant. His boss allows him to finish his last case, a solitary drunk who lived on the same development as John. He eventually tracks down the man’s daughter, Kelly (Joanne Froggatt), a meeting which opens up his hitherto solitary and regimented life.
I’ve seen this described as a black comedy, and there are moments when that fits – a coffin descending early in the film to the robust tones of Scotland The Brave is one. But actually it’s much more of a tragi-comedy, a lump in the throat film and much of that is down to Eddie Marsan’s almost unbearably touching performance in the lead.
He’s such a solitary character that you just know that he’ll join the ranks of those dying alone when his time comes. He regards his own solitude as natural yet never recognises that he’s desperately lonely, filling his days with routine and order: just watch the way he peels and apple. Yet he has a massive heart and it’s full of compassion, treating the deceased like individuals instead of just names on paper and the attention to detail that rules his life translates itself into acts of generosity and pure humanity.
Marsan is truly superb, capturing every little nuance of his oddball yet sympathetic character. More often cast in a supporting role – a British version of “that guy”, recently seen as a thoroughly nasty undertaker alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman in God’s Pocket – it’s great to see him in the spotlight and he holds the film together with the lightest of touches. It’s a performance that won him Best Actor last year at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, although this is a film that was first released in 2013.
Co-star Joanne Froggatt is most familiar nowadays as Anna Bates in Downton. As the equally lonely Kelly, she’s more aware of her solitude, filling it with a large dog and working at the local kennels. And it’s the common ground of loneliness that brings them together, hesitantly and cautiously. It’s reminiscent of Marsan’s role in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, where he played the friend of the family who touchingly falls in love with Vera’s daughter, a plain and painfully shy girl who they think will never marry. Both are tender relationships that you desperately want to work out.
For a British film, Still Life feels remarkably European and that’s down to the cinematography. There’s lots of single figures in landscapes, John very often. We see him take the same walk home to his flat every day, waiting at the zebra crossing, passing the same man leaning out of the same window every day. Even when he walks along the high street, it seems remarkably devoid of people during the day time. The focus, ultimately, is always on him.
It’s a delicate, beautifully judged film with thoughtful acting and genuine warmth, despite all its solitude. Which is why the final scenes jar so unexpectedly. I won’t give it away, but all of a sudden the tone descends into a sentimentality that simply doesn’t belong in the film. And what’s really sad is that it would have worked just as well without it.
Still Life is released in selected cinemas on Friday, 6 February.