Still Life, directed by Uberto Pasolini, is a film that seems to be built on Winston Churchill’s maxim that “if you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time.” Which is good because if a story has a point to make then it has direction, and what’s more (for a film with such a small scope) it’s also extremely stylistic. There’s a lot to like here. The problem is that stylistic doesn’t mean good, and the point that Still Life seems so adamant to make is that life is depressing.
How depressing, you ask? Well, among fans, there’s a joke about Ernest Hemingway’s writing. It goes like this:
Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Answer: To die. Alone. In the rain.
I make that point known so early in this review because it is the film’s tone – a grey, slow depression – and if that does not appeal to you then you will not like this film. That’s all there is to it.
For everyone else, though, Still Life is alright, but stale – like the box of cereal left on a shelf just a little too long. If I would have to make a comparison to another film, it would have to be the Ben Stiller drama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty because, as disappointing as it may be to say, their premises are nearly identical: a middle-aged, repressed man is fired from the job that he’s been doing since he was young because his way of doing that job isn’t cost effective anymore and in the process of finishing his last assignment, messes it up. Because that man has become emotionally invested in that job, perhaps because it’s the only thing that he has in his life or perhaps because he wants to finish on a high note, he puts extra-special care into fixing that mistake and doing it right, a process that will take him on a great journey across the land. The only difference between the two is that Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) went across the world and John May (Eddie Marsan) – Still Life‘s protagonist – went to Whitby.
It’s where you get into the details, though, that Still Life shows itself to be a completely different film to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and where the film’s strengths (and weaknesses) become apparent. Firstly, there is Marsan’s character. John May is one of the great cleaners of this world, a silent cog in the byzantine machine that is a small, local council. The British will be familiar with how that works but for anyone in the US, imagine the DMV from hell if that DMV was run on the logic and empathy of The Thick of It (2005). Now, take that idea and intensify it by the fourth power, then you’ll have the faintest idea of how local councils work in the British government. And that’s without even getting started on parliament.
Your nightmares about trying to navigate the bureaucracy of the city council and state government? We wish we had it so good.
Anyway, it’s John’s job to make sure that the relatives and loved ones of the recently deceased are informed of their death. Often, though – and the film makes this very clear – people have no one to inform. When that happens, it’s John’s job to dispose of the body, and John does it very, very well. Instead of just having all the bodies cremated and the ashes dumped, he takes his time to make sure that their religious beliefs are honoured and that they are cared for with dignity after death. In a way, the way that John handles his (admittedly very gruesome job) reminds me of a quote by Terry Pratchett in his novel Reaper Man (1991):
“LORD, WE KNOW THERE IS NO GOOD ORDER EXCEPT THAT WHICH WE CREATE…
THERE IS NO HOPE BUT US. THERE IS NO MERCY BUT US. THERE IS NO JUSTICE. THERE IS JUST US. ALL THINGS THAT ARE, ARE OURS. BUT WE MUST CARE. FOR IF WE DO NOT CARE, WE DO NOT EXIST. (…) LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?”
Further cementing his comparison to the caring reaper is the fact that John creates a scrapbook of the people he cares for from pictures in their files – not for gruesome reasons, you understand, but so that someone, anyone will remember them. This job takes up all of John’s life, so much that he doesn’t really do anything else, but there does seem to be a sort of quiet contentedness to him. I think the reason for that is that John does see himself as one of the people, and in many ways he is like them. That wouldn’t be bad, per say – after all, some people do define themselves by their work, and that’s fine, but it’s also telling that he displays a lot of characteristics of someone struggling with depression before the film begins properly, when John is fired because the way that he cares for his charges isn’t cost effective anymore. But, before John is sent on his way, he has one last job to do: William ‘Bill’ Stoke – a man who lived across from John.
Like John, William lived a quiet existence and never mentioned any family to anyone who knew him. But, when going through William’s things, John discovers that William had a daughter – someone who might care. And thus begins the plot in earnest. In many ways, it’s the typical British indie film plot: slow and stylish without any great epiphany or catharsis, an anti-Walter Mitty. Some people might enjoy such a film, but I was desperate for a glimmer of hope amongst the mountain of cynicism that is this film. Something to quicken the pace. Something. But no. Instead, Still Life seems very content to continue forward at a meandering, depressing and disappointing pace before reaching its inevitable conclusion.
In many ways, it’s the typical British indie film plot: slow and stylish without any great epiphany or catharsis, an anti-Walter Mitty. Some people might enjoy such a film, but I was desperate for a glimmer of hope amongst this mountain of nihilism. Something to quicken the pace. Something. But no. Instead, Still Life seems very content to continue forward at a meandering, depressing and disappointing pace before reaching its inevitable conclusion.
But that’s not to say Still Life is completely without merit, no. Still Life is very stylish, and you can see that the director and the cinematographer put a lot of effort into establishing a style that relies on stillness. The problem with that, though, is that the only influence for a style such as this one can only be the colour of the pavement in a Thatcherite era bust station. If I were feeling academic, I’d say that it’s a kind of 21st century Dada, a reaction to the dullness of modern life, that like TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Still Life is a piece of art that can only show us the bad parts of life because it is the film’s agency that there are no good parts left, that those good parts have been washed away by the recession (which arguably costs May his job) and the EU, which (in the film) is claimed to have cost Whitby much of its fishing business. If I were feeling academic, which I’m not, so I’ll just say that Still Life is stylish, but it’s not good.
But to the film’s credit, it does have Eddie Marsan, the quietest member of the modern British brat pack, as its protagonist. Having Marsan in this role helps the film for two reasons. Firstly, Marsan is an extremely talented actor who is able to handle anything from quietly comforting to weak and pathetic to downright terrifying exceedingly well. Secondly, because of his extensive resume – which covers everything from British indie films such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed to American big budget films such as Sherlock Holmes (2009) to critically acclaimed American TV, in the case of Ray Donovan – Marsan is very much the everyday man of cinema and television, the guy who will step in and be there without you noticing he’s there – much like John May himself. This means that from the audience’s point of view, it’s easy to see Marsan as John where if it had been someone like Nick Frost (someone with a much smaller resume), it might’ve been much more difficult to accept. Marsan never really hits his stride in this film because of the script requires his role to be played conservatively, but he does an admirable job with what he’s given, as does Joanne Froggatt (primarily known for her work in Downton Abbey) in the role of Kelly Stoke (William Stoke’s eldest daughter) – although she gets much less screen time.
Recommending Still Life is always going to be a hard sell, not only because of its morbid subject matter, but also because of its meandering pace, depressing tone and rather lacklustre plot. Yet, despite all its negative points, I do think there’s heart to this film, something to admire, something that can’t be quantified or qualified because not everyone will see it the way I see it. For me, it’s that knowledge that despite the inevitability of death, that the world will continue on and that for the coldness of the modern world, that human kindness hasn’t completely been extinguished.
With that established, can I recommend this film? No, because to put it simply it’s not for everyone – it certainly wasn’t for me. It has a talented cast, but its script is nothing special. It has music, but it’s not worth talking about. It has style, but that style is cold. It has heart, but it has no soul.