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United Kingdom/Italy 2013
Directed by
Uberto Pasolini
94 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Still Life

Synopsis: John May (Eddie Marsan) has worked for a local council for 22 years. His job is to find any next of kin for people who have died alone and in the event of no-one being found, to organise their funeral. John is painstakingly thorough, and when efficiency measures are implemented, he is made redundant. Only one last case is left to be tackled – that of William Stokes, a man with a colourful past and a daughter, Kelly (Joanne Froggatt). As John uncovers Billy’s past, it seems to have an influence on his own life – perhaps there are other ways of living that he has never imagined.

Producer, writer and director Uberto Pasolini’s meditation on the themes of human connectedness and the social value of individual lives has yielded an immaculately observed, gentle and sensitive film inspired by real life people and events.

Anyone looking for a quick fix will not appreciate this film’s methodical pace and attention to detail. You need to let yourself be absorbed by John’s life, to immerse yourself in the minutiae of his daily routine, from the way he peels an apple and lays his lonely dinner table, to the obsessive ordering of his work files and desk.But John is a man who also observes the small details of his clients’ lives. In one early scene, as he takes “clues” from a dead woman’s home, he (and the audience) are witness to the traces of her presence such as the imprint of her head on a pillow and the impression of her fingers in her cold-cream. These seemingly insignificant things, like ghosts from an individual’s past, are in fact at the heart of the film. One minute we are there and alive; the next we are gone, and for these people who is there to acknowledge a life once richly lived?  

John May is there. He writes eulogies as if he knew the deceased, organises the funeral music, and even keeps a photo album of the people who have died alone, a silent tribute to say “yes, you mattered”. Marsan, who first came to widespread attention in Mike Leigh’s 2007 film Happy-Go-Lucky, gives the performance of his career in a film in which he is on-screen in just about every shot. His sad but composed face can only suggest what is going on in his head. There is no back-story explaining why he is like this yet the compassion and ability to connect of this strange little man shines through. Froggatt, well-known from TV show, Downton Abbey, is wonderfully unpretentious as Stokes’ daughter, Kelly, a woman with much baggage in her life. It would be unfair to reveal anything about the plot but suffice to say that it goes where I would never have imagined.

The cinematography by Stefano Falivene is notable and complements the film’s emotional trajectory impressively. Thus, early on in the story we have most of the world seen from John’s point of view. Seldom do we see him with other people and many shots are geometrically framed, as he methodically goes about his business. The muted palette adds to the sense of order and quietude. Only later as John’s senses open up, thanks to stories he uncovers, old pals, and his relationship with Kelly, do camera compositions change and the colouring become livelier. A beautiful score by Rachel Portman, Pasolini’s wife, and featuring Celtic harp and piano, is used only sparingly to optimal effect.





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