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Still Life

Still Life

Eddie Marsan anchors quietly touching film about matters of mortality

Is anybody listening? Eddie Marsan in 'Still Life'

The images have a painterly precision in Uberto Pasolini's Still Life, as one might expect from a writing-directing effort from the onetime producer of The Full Monty that co-opts a style of painting as its title. Lead actor Eddie Marsan is often positioned at the centre of the shot, the meticulous visuals of a piece with a movie about a 44-year-old man who is himself fastidious to a fault as he goes about his job. That said employment has involved 22 years at Kennington Council tracing the relatives of people who have passed away means that John May (Marsan) spends a lot of time thinking about the dead, and it's not entirely clear whether some fundamental flicker within this most diligent of workers hasn't been snuffed out as well.

Pasolini's quietly touching film is about the belated awakening to something resembling life that John manages to achieve during what turns out to be his last case, the borough having decided to dispense with his services. (Marsan pictured on the job, above.) As he is told in the course of his dismissal, it's perhaps time for "a job where people are alive for a change", and Andrew Buchan, playing the messenger of doom who is John's boss, delivers the line with all the unctuousness that goes with petty officialdom reveling in its power. (The character's name, Mr Pratchett, sounds like someone out of Dickens, as in his ready superciliousness the character might as well be.)

Flummoxed at first to be cast out of a job he takes seriously, John uses his firing to renew the efforts he is making on behalf of one particular member of the deceased – an alcoholic with a dubious past whose memory John is nonetheless determined to honour. John's interest is amplified by the fact that this individual had lived just nearby, so John might hypothetically had been able to help him in life and is doubly determined to do so now that the man has died. Like a detective handed a career-defining case, John springs into action and Pasolini responds in kind, the prevailingly drab palette of what has come before actually allowing in the odd burst of colour.

At this point, one really shouldn't say too much more so as to preserve the element of surprise to a screenplay that, arguably, is better when doing least and that has to struggle to accommodate perhaps one shift in storyline and mood too many. You'll recognise qualities of Chekhov's characters at their most indrawn in Marsan's defining reserve, a shell – whether protective or otherwise – that is pierced by the burgeoning friendship he strikes up with the mopey-seeming Kelly (Joanne Froggatt, pictured above), daughter of the no-hoper on whose trail John has staked what remains of his career.

Marsan has worked multiple times with Mike Leigh, and his performance here comes layered with that same attention to detail, from the careful parting of the hair to the way John arranges his unappetising-looking meals as if they represented so many, well, still lives. Capable of looking doughy and bereft one minute and sweet-faced the next, Marsan anchors the film with an unshowy master class that complements the varying colours of Rachel Portman's score, the harp and spanish guitar used to especially fine effect. (Portman is Pasolini's wife.) 

A great creation in his own right, John is the sort of anonymous-seeming but dedicated individual with whom we cross paths everyday but about whom films are rarely made: someone who takes pride in what they do and doesn't need plaudits to get out of bed. The rewards, such as they are, for such people come as unexpectedly as the setbacks. I especially liked the scene in which John goes belting after an ice cream van whose back door is unlocked, thereby sending the contents tumbling out on to the street. The driver never hears John alerting him to take action, which in a way is just as well since the next shot finds this ever-humble and gentle member of society tucking quietly into a tub of Häagen Dazs.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Still Life 

You'll recognise qualities of Chekhov's characters at their most indrawn in Marsan's defining reserve

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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