Still Life ***
Director: Uberto Pasolini. Starring: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt, Karen Drury, Andrew Buchan, Neil D’Souza, Paul Anderson, Bronson Webb 12A cert, 92 min
There exists a species of supporting actor too humble, or busy, to subject themselves to the sustained big-screen consideration that is perhaps their due. You’ll have spotted the unmistakable Eddie Marsan beetling away in the background of films by everyone from Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York) to Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) and lately US TV (the perceptively pungent male-crisis melodrama Ray Donovan), but no-one’s really thought to put him front and centre until the droll Still Life. It’s possible Uberto Pasolini picked up his Best Director gong at 2013’s Venice festival just for having that bright idea.
Certainly, the role of John May, dogged functionary for Kennington Borough Council, fits Marsan’s diligent character work to a tee: few performers could be so expressive about their pen-pushing. John, however, has a highly unusual vocation: it’s his job to process the admin left behind by those who’ve died alone, writing eulogies and spreading the ashes if no-one else is around to do it. John and his “clients” share an odd intimacy – he’s among the last to witness the deceased’s undies drying on the radiator – so his musty existence is understandably unsettled by a neighbour’s lonely demise: this case strikes far too close to home.
The spectre of tragic neglect hovering over the narrative suggests some kinship with Carol Morley’s indelibly downbeat Dreams of a Life, but Still Life’s middle act, in which John sets out to Whitby, then Truro, in pursuit of his client’s estranged relatives, expands our hero’s horizons in pleasingly idiosyncratic ways: a cup of hot chocolate cues a minor epiphany. We expect movement along conventional lines when bachelor John begins meeting with the deceased’s daughter (Joanne Froggatt) in railway cafes that seem more than ever a stop-off between worlds, but one or two further surprises await.
The last of these will likely split audiences, not least for the way it violates the unshowy realism Still Life has previously cultivated, but it’s been carefully set up to elicit a response: Pasolini, who produced The Full Monty back in 1997, knows how to play with our emotions without resorting to undue manipulation. He has a major ally in Marsan, whose sad eyes, gradually opening to the pleasures of connection, come to speak a thousand words more than his largely stilled tongue. While he’s on screen, steadily feeling out the material’s every nuance, Still Life remains the affectingly modest, quietly profound vehicle he deserves.
Still Life is now playing in selected cinemas.