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VENICE — Eddie Marsan applies his protean gifts to an odd-little-man role almost in the Charlie Chaplin vein in Still Life. There are inevitably going to be pleasures to savor whenever this fine British character actor occupies center-screen, and for a while that’s almost enough to sustain writer-director Uberto Pasolini’s minor-key drama about the ebb and flow of a solitary existence. But the fragile film’s bid for poignancy is so aggressive and its sensitivity so studied that it eventually drowns in syrupy banality.
Marsan plays John May, a 44-year-old South London council employee whose job is to trace the next of kin of the borough’s unclaimed dead. Profoundly dedicated to a morbid task that he actually finds rewarding, John is a collector of disenfranchised souls. He believes that everyone whose file comes across his desk deserves a dignified exit.
John organizes funerals for all denominations, choosing appropriate music for services that he’s often the only person to attend. He puts careful thought into composing eulogies for people he never met, based only on what he can glean from objects and photographs found in their homes. He also does what he can to track down a contact. When the wait-and-see period is up and no relative has surfaced, he reluctantly admits defeat and scatters the ashes of the deceased, adding their file photo to the album he keeps in his sad council flat.
While the writing is often on-the-nose and the dialogue labored, as a protagonist John is not without potential for an eccentric film that considers the value of an unobserved life. To a degree that’s what Pasolini (the Full Monty producer whose prior directing effort was 2008’s Machan) is doing here. But while a filmmaker like Terence Davies or Mike Leigh might have mined complex layers in the character and his peculiar interactions with people both living and dead, Still Life has no depth. It’s also one of those faux-social realist British movies that smacks of condescension in its ennoblement of the drab and miserable.
Production designer Lisa Marie Hall and cinematographer Stefano Falivene do nice work finding visual echoes of John’s borderline OCD sense of order. Their compositions frequently mirror his fastidious personal domain, from the neat organization of his desk to the careful placement of his unvaried evening meal of canned tuna, white toast and an apple. The subtext could hardly be more obvious.
Nor could the direction the story is headed. A call to deal with the case of Billy Stoke, who died friendless and in alcoholic destitution in a shabby flat directly opposite his own prompts John to reflect on the narrowness of his life. Job-eliminated after 22 years when his department is downsized, he spends his own time and money on that final case, piecing together Billy’s life to ensure that he doesn’t depart this world unremembered.
There are some delicate scenes between Marsan and the lovely Joanne Froggatt from Downton Abbey as Billy’s estranged daughter. But even the predictable path of a gentle romance would have been preferable to the maudlin developments as the plot sinks into bathos, erasing whatever shreds of integrity it still has left by then. (And with adorable homeless boozers musing on life’s unfulfilled desires, believe me, that’s not much.)
Drenched unrelentingly in the cloying saccharine of composer Rachel Portman‘s criminal score, the film ends with a groan-inducing coda that nudges its preciousness into the afterlife. “What on earth were they thinking?” is the question that all but the most ingenuous audiences will be left wondering.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Cast: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt, Karen Drury, Andrew Buchan, Ciaran McIntyre, Neil D’Souza, Paul Anderson, Tim Potter
Director-screenwriter: Uberto Pasolini
Production company: Redwave, Embargo Films, in association with Cinecitta Studios, Exponential Media, Beta Cinema, Rai Cinema
Producers: Uberto Pasolini, Felix Vossen, Christopher Simon
Executive producer: Barnaby Southcombe
Director of photography: Stefano Falivene
Production designer: Lisa Marie Hall
Music: Rachel Portman
Editors: Tracy Granger, Gavin Buckley
Costume designer: Pam Downe
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 87 minutes.
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