I watched this 2013 film quite by chance last night following a Netflix browse, having never heard of it before.
Still Life is extraordinary. I discovered it has won many awards at smaller film festivals for director, lead actor and cinematography, although no nods from the bigger fish. Of course not, it is far too simple and real and low-key to be Oscar potential.
Still Life tells the story of people who die alone with no friends or relatives to mourn them. Or at least the main character, John May, tells their stories. Mr May (a note-perfect Eddie Marsan) is a London civil servant whose job it is to try and trace the relatives of those who die alone, and to arrange for the dead person’s funeral. Sometimes a body will have lain dead for days before being discovered. Mostly, the dead are elderly people who have lost contact with everyone who remembers them. They have no-one to ask after them, no-one to visit them.
Mr May painstakingly searches among their belongings for clues to the sort of person they were, writes their eulogies, and chooses music for the funeral services which seem to reflect their taste. And each evening, he goes home to his own lonely flat, where he has a tin of tuna with a slice of white toast for supper, followed by a green apple. He’s done this job for 22 years and his almost obsessively well-ordered life is every bit as isolated as those who die alone. He knows it, the comparison is obvious.
One day, the person who has died and whose flat he is called to is a near neighbour, a man he has never met but who lived just a few hundred feet away. Shortly afterwards, May is told he is being let go from his job. He takes too much time and goes to too much effort to locate the families of the dead, he is simply not cost effective. (Early in the film, there’s a scene where he lovingly scatters the ashes of one person over a rose bush. Later, the woman who has taken over from him shows her efficiency by dumping multiple tubs of unclaimed ashes unceremoniously into a hole in the ground.)
May becomes more determined than ever before to trace this man’s friends and family, his resolve taking him on a quest around the country, meeting and befriending people as he unravels the story of his last case. In the process, his own isolation slowly begins to unravel and he starts to hope there might be a conclusion for him that will be different from those other lonely people whose lives he tries to commemorate.
As a study of desperate loneliness in a busy city, this story is superb. With the (excellent) musical score used sparingly, a lot of the film is in silence, and the whole thing rests on Eddie Marsan’s ability to convey layer upon layer of meaning in his expression, often with no or minimal dialogue. The film is made up of a number of “still life” scenes, seen through May’s eyes, pointing poignantly to loneliness and later to hope. The cinematography is wonderful and the set styling faultless.
As all great films do, it has made me think. How far away are we all from a solitary unmarked death? I’m lucky, I have friends and family. But I don’t see or speak to them every day. I live alone. As I grow older and retire, is it possible my body could lie undiscovered for days or weeks? It’s made me wonder if I need to come out of my cave a little more often, to be more free and spontaneous in my contact with other humans.
Overall, the rawness of this story of urban loneliness and isolation is difficult but compelling to watch. As another reviewer put it, I feel grateful for having had the opportunity to see this film.