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Directed and written by Uberto Pasolini, Still Life was originally released in Italy in the Venice Film Festival in 2013, and went on to win the award for Best Director in the category “Orizzonti”. It also received the Black Pearl award at the 2013 Abu Dhabi Film Festival for “its humanity, empathy, and grace in treating grief, solitude, and death”, and for his performance, lead actor Eddie Marsan won the Best British Actor award at the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival. One might, therefore, expect quite a stunning film, and this is backed by the 81 per cent positive audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What one might not expect is to be holding back yawns for the majority of the film.
This 92 minute drama commences with a series of funerals, varying in religion and venue, but not in attendance. The sole mourner, John May (played by Eddie Marson) is a London council worker who is charged with finding the next of kin of those who have died alone. Not only does he attend the funerals of the deceased, he also arranges them himself (using council money which, as his boss pointedly remarks, could be better spent elsewhere) and even writes their eulogies. This painstaking nature is carefully maintained by Marson, who depicts Mr May as systematic in every aspect of his life, including his austere tuna-and-toast dinner (applying the “bachelors cannot cook” trope) and the meticulous ritual of pasting photographs from his casefiles into a personal album. The audience quickly realises that Mr May is without relatives and friends, and his muted, solitary life is observed with as much quiet sympathy he accords to his cases.
The melancholic leitmotif, a sombre plucking of strings which follows Mr May throughout the film, lends it a subtle atmosphere of sadness, although the majority of Still Life is drably ordinary and not conducive to alertness, especially on a comfortable cinema seat. Perhaps too light on backstory, the film only offers small glimpses into the life of Mr Billy Stoke, the last case Mr May is responsible for, and none on Mr May himself. When Joanne Froggatt is introduced as Kelly Stoke, the late Billy’s daughter, a breeze of conversation and change floats across the screen. Then, with only 15 minutes left, the inevitable conclusion is turned on its head and Pasolini pulls a bus out of the hat! With a lugubrious, unexpected ending, Still Life is transformed into a profound bit of dramatic irony that is worth the lengthy wait.