Eddie Marsan is perfectly cast in his belated and deserving debut leading role for Uberto Pasolini’s emotionally profound Still Life. Marsan plays Mr. (John) May, a middle aged council worker as bleak as his grey jumper. He works in solitude to find the next of kins for citizens who have died alone in the borough, mostly pursuing dead ends like those in his life. It’s an irony that Pasolini never intends to make subtle as the film is replete with glaring symbolism that links May to living within this community of loneliness that his work forces him to be enclosed by. He eats the same dinner as them, collects their photographs and even lives right across the road from his last case after he is given notice due to budget cuts and department downsizing.
May’s work on this case of alcoholic Billy Stoke gives the film its unconventional detective narrative core and provides such rich insight into a man whose skin Marsan revels in. Exploring why May has chosen and enjoyed this line of work for 22 years, we question whether he adopted their characteristics over time (like Stoke’s anecdote of peeing in his employer’s prized possession after being fired) or if he has always passionately related to their sorrow. A scene where May looks over his collection of past clients in a photobook is memorably harrowing; seeing the faces of these individuals that he effectively regards as his own friends and family, accompanied by Rachel Portman’s stirring piano score, speaks with such warmth for humanity. It’s a somber meditation on how we could come to lose our beloved family and friends; ending up destitute and detached, while simultaneously posing thoughts on who (if anyone) would be there to assemble May’s funeral and his next of kins upon passing with the same kindness that he’s bestowed on those before him.
Economically paced like Mr. May himself, the pronounced layers might have been handled with more subtlety by a Mike Leigh, but Pasolini undoubtedly manages to craft a deeply affecting and poignant character study with a sentimentality that peaks in an audience splitting ending but left my heart howling.
Edinburgh International Film Festival, 2014.