John May (Eddie Marsan, The World's End) is a British council worker tasked with tending to the remains of unclaimed individuals. John often goes above and beyond in an effort to find any surviving friends or family members, but usually has little luck. On the rare occasions when he actually does track someone down, he often learns that the deceased was (and is) unloved and unwanted. John can relate: he's a friendless, unloved man himself, and as such tends to develop something of a kinship with the souls he puts to rest. He attends their funerals, serving as an attentive one-man audience for pastors, priests and other religious leaders saddled with the burden of eulogizing people no one knows. John's life is quiet and lonely, but he goes about his daily routine without complaining or feeling sorry for himself. He takes comfort in the little things, such as the moment when he visits the gravesite he has purchased for himself, lies down in the grass and happily considers that this is the lovely little spot where he'll spend eternity.
Suddenly and without warning, John is informed that he's being fired. Not because he's done anything wrong or because he's incompetent, but simply because his thoroughness is perceived as inefficiency. John isn't sure what he's going to do, but requests time to finish working on one last case: a dead man named Billy Stoke. His employer begrudgingly agrees to give him three days.
Here, Still Life adopts the structure of a mystery or procedural, though the answers being sought are hardly sensational. John simply wants to know who this person was, and whether anyone cares that he has passed away. He learns that Billy was a drunk and a rabble-rouser, that he was a philanderer and that all of his relationships ended badly. He visits the man's lovers, friends and professional associates, most of whom respond to the news of Billy's death with some variation on, “good riddance.” He eventually meets Billy's daughter Kelly (Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey), and experiences a connection with her which makes him wonder if he might not be doomed to spend life alone, after all.
Writer/producer/director Uberto Pasolini has crafted a film which feels like the cinematic equivalent of a great short story. It's a spare, simple tale which observes each of its elements with thoughtful care; a film almost entirely comprised of moments that other films rush through in an effort to get to the “good stuff.” The film's budget was clearly a small one, but its sense of place is so much sharper than that of many blockbusters. There's a reserved lyricism to nearly every element: the cinematography, the dialogue, the performances, the melancholy score (by Pasolini's ex-wife Rachel Portman) and the editing. Pasolini is the nephew of the great Luchino Visconti, and it's clear that talent runs in the family.
Eddie Marsan is one of those indispensable character actors you've seen in everything, but who you may not know by name. This film gives him a rare opportunity to step into a leading role, and he demonstrates that he deserves to have more of them. His performance here carries echoes of Bill Murray's work in Broken Flowers – he mostly expresses himself through understated body language and subtle facial expressions, and looks of deep longing often serve as substitutes for impassioned monologues. There's such humanity in his portrait of this sad, beautiful man: he's the sort of person none of us want to be, and the sort of person we should all aspire to be.
For much of its running time, Still Life struck me as a gentle slice-of-life tale with the faintest hint of a love story, but no: it finally reveals itself as something else, building to a startling, emotionally overwhelming conclusion. The movie is sweet, but never sentimental, and I found myself completely blindsided by the torrent of feeling contained within those last few minutes. It's not a sequence of self-contained greatness, however: it draws its power from the quiet self-control the film has demonstrated elsewhere. I wept and wept, then dried my eyes, feeling a little bit better about the world than I had 92 minutes earlier.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 2015