A pervasive gloom hangs over Umberto Pasolini’s Still Life. Its almost relentlessly sad first act introduces us to John May (Eddie Marsan), a civil servant whose job entails seeking the relatives of identified corpses in an English town, resulting in most of his day being spent fruitlessly researching only to have relatives refuse to attend the funeral. His job is positioned as almost an exercise in futility, the corpses he collects having as much joy in life as he does. He’s a spectre of death, black suit, suitcase, going from church to church, the only attendee at funerals. There’s a great recurring visual motif of him standing next to statues, an echo of their stoicism. Where the problem of Still Life lies, though, is that Pasolini is so focused on constructing tonal sadness that he forgets to make May anything of a real person. He’s a collection of characteristics, existing solely for the propulsion of plot.
In the tonal construction Pasolini favours bluntness over subtlety, most notably in an infuriating recurring narrative device that sees us watch May answer the telephone at work. The wholly artificial sounding conversations, in which he ends up enunciating to the audience exactly what’s going on (“So you won’t be coming to the funeral?”), with seemingly textbook cases of next of kin abandoning their not-so-dearly departed. Eddie Marsan ums and ahs, exaggerating the intended emotional impact and it comes off false and uninvolving. It’s not just May’s dialogue that’s groan-inducing, often Pasolini bluntly constructs themes and metaphors in conversation, at one point a character calls May a “dodo”, then to drive that comparison home, Pasolini feels the need to add “you’re a rare thing.” Another heavy-handed element is the cartoonish antagonist in May’s younger boss, who acts as both an example of the evils of bureaucracy but also gets some choice lines of dialogue, including “The dead are dead.”
That being said, Eddie Marsan does deliver quite an impressive performance, especially when the script isn’t making him overexplain. His subtle facial movements and the way he looks forlornly at a set of records in a dead man’s home, does bring May to life. Joanne Frogart, who appears very much near the end of the film (despite being billed and advertised as a co-lead), completely acquits herself as Kelly Stoke, the daughter of May’s final case file. Whilst perhaps not as emotionally devastating as her turn on Downton Abbey, here she managed to craft character and feeling so effortlessly and so quickly that you might be fooled into thinking the script has actually allowed for genuine emotional development and arc.
Some of the production design is also quite effective. The juxtaposition between May’s cramped apartment and the relatively spacious homes of the deceased questions the value of a live lived – May’s insular job in which he is fulfilled by helping those who can never thank him seems noble yet also soul-crushing. This disparity in rooms tends to reflect the possibility of regret that flickers in front of May’s eyes from time to time. May’s meticulousness is another compelling aspect, his CD collection consisting entirely of various choral and traditional songs used for the funerals he attends is neatly placed on a shelf, yet where he has plentiful music to choose from, his eating habits consist of a can of tuna dumped on a piece of bread. Whilst this is an initially interesting contrast, the usage of food as discovery in the film tends to fall flat; though it initially brings the arrival of more bright and engaging cinematography it also serves as an oversimplistic piece of character development.
Rachel Portman’s score is fine, not a shade on her work in Never Let Me Go, but her music has to do a whole lot of legwork here. There are many scenes of May walking around the city or in apartments in which the tone seems to be wholly constructed by Portman, the cinematography mostly plain. As mentioned previously, it’s only when we get closer to May that we see the impressive work of Marsan.
Whilst its heavy-handedness tends to grow throughout the film’s runtime, even a story about Mr. Stoke’s wartime days is too little too late, the film’s ending is completely dire. Its lazy sentimentalism overreaches completely and it seems to run counter to the tonal development of the final act. Instead of following the narrative it had started to build, the film jumps back to notions from the film’s opening, a jarring return that mars any genuine emotional connection at the conclusion. As such, Pasolini’s film ends up an unsophisticated look at grief, and a disappointing final product from a seemingly interesting opening act.