The film is about John May (Eddie Marsan), an employee of a London borough, and his post is that of a funeral officer. This is an actual job. When someone dies alone and apparently without relatives, the funeral officer goes through their effects and then tries to trace any relatives to take charge of the funeral. When none are found, or those that are found don’t want to know, the funeral officer takes charge and arranges the funeral.
May writes eulogies for priest to read out, but he tries to give the deceased a fuller life than he gathers from the remnants that they have left behind. This can mean, and this film demonstrates it so well, that the only people at the funeral are the priest or vicar and the funeral officer.
We learn that May lives alone, a solitary person with no relationships, so much like those whom he investigates at their death. He then begins to investigate what is to become his last case. A man has died alone and with no apparent relatives, but the difference from all the others is that he happens to live in the same block of flats in which May himself lives.
John May is meticulous, but his care makes him appear slow to his employers who feel more efficiency could be achieved by two boroughs combining their funeral officer post with May being made redundant.
May’s last case suddenly becomes all important to him, and he works on to track down those that knew his neighbor, including some lovely scenes of chasing around all of the fish and chip shops in Whitby.
Eddie Marsan, currently playing in the BBC serial Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, is a superb choice to play May, rightly won Best Actor award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Pasolini himself (in the Special Features) says that he wanted “a believable everyman” and Marsan wonderfully underplays the role, and yet draws out all of the nuances of his complex, lonely character – a powerful performance that is both subtle yet complex.
All characters are totally believable, including Joanne Froggatt who plays the estranged daughter of the “last case”, and some lively vagrants, who one can identify as prospective future cases for a funeral officer.
As someone who has worked (and been made redundant!) in local government, I found the suddenness of the sacking a little unbelievable. These decisions go through committees and those who are down for dismissal for cost savings see it coming well in advance. However, I’m perfectly happy to allow a little artistic license for the sake of the story.
Despite the morbid subject matter, the film certainly isn’t without humour, mostly of the dry kind, but it does not offend, even though the film is dealing with a “sensitive” subject.
Do be warned if you are a depressive that a film dealing with loneliness and solitude, even though its message is that every life is important, just might not be the film for you. It certainly made me shed a few tears. Pasolini is unapologetic about this, and says that he understands that, when people go for a Saturday night out to the cinema, not everyone will want to see a film about funerals and loneliness; but he questions whether we always want to be “entertained” or whether we want to be “emotionally transported”. He says that the film contains “no speed and no action”. There are sad moments, he says, but the film is about the love for a fellow human being.
Pasolini regards the film, his second as a director, as a “personal film” dealing with an important issue for Western society. Indeed, it is a damning portrait of our society which allows people to die alone and with no one to witness their final act on Earth – their passing from life to death and their burial.
Pasolini has carefully researched his subject and points out that there are thousands of funerals in the UK each year that are not attended by anybody. He goes on to say that the family as a cohabiting unit has disappeared and neighbourhoods are not what they were. Many people do not even know the name of their neighbour. We just don’t interact any more. For some reason, I had thought of this issue as being confined to Britain, but Pasolini says that this isn’t so – it is a western issue and that in the United States they, too, have funeral officers doing exactly the same job as John May.
Pasolini says that the film will have succeeded if it makes just one person find out their neighbour’s name. How can one argue with that?
This is a beautifully filmed production with muted colours, and with a strange almost funereal tinge.
The Special Features consist of a fairly brief Making Of, the theatrical trailer, and interviews with Eddie Marson, Joanne Froggatt, and Uberto Pasolini. When I saw the Pasolini interview it was “What’s this???”. It looked like the DVD producer said on the day before production, “Hey guys, we’ve forgotten the interview with the director! Just go out, shoot it, no time to watch it – just add it to the DVD!” The interview looks incredibly amateurish. It is as if the cameraman turned up uninvited. Even an interruption gets filmed. ……And then I started to think about the positive. What a change from the smooth, slick, probably rehearsed interview with background music which we are used to on so many DVD Special Features. Pasolini talks from the heart and says a lot of good stuff. The interview has sure got the low budget look, but so what. It’s great!
This is a film which is well worth watching and you will feel rewarded if you do so. And remember – if you don’t know your neighbour’s name: go and ask!
Warning – spoiler! Only one thing really nags me with this film and that is the end. Think Blade Runner (first version) and ask yourself whether you would have cut it sixty seconds or so before the end.
Review by Eric Jukes
[SRA value=”5″ type=”YN”]
Still Life is out now on DVD.