Cast: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt, Karen Drury, Andrew Buchan, Neil D’Souza, Paul Anderson, Tim Potter, Ciaran McIntyre
Director: Uberto Pasolini
Writer: Uberto Pasolini
It is often said that we are born alone and that we die alone. It is a scary thought. There are many people who fear nothing more than dying alone. To not be remembered or missed by anyone. To leave nothing behind after they are gone. To spend their final minutes without the comforts of a loved one by their side. Yet some do. After they have expired their corpses remain undiscovered for days and weeks. They have no families to claim their bodies and possessions. Either no one remembers or nobody cares. Such are the poor souls that John May (Eddie Marsan) encounters on a daily basis.
John May is a council caseworker whose job it is to claim the bodies of those found dead and alone. He tries, and often fails, to track down the relatives of the deceased before deciding what is to be done with the body. Such a bleak line of work would surly leave one in a dejected state, yet astonishingly May humbly remains an optimist. When he encounters those who are departed and forgotten, he takes upon himself to care and to remember them. He organises their funerals, he writes their obituaries, and he keeps their photographs in an album so that he might never forget them. It is a thankless job that he does willingly and graciously. Like these unfortunate individuals, May lives a life of solitude. He has no family or friends, no hobbies, and no luxuries. He lives a life without colour or flavour, and the only pleasure he gets is from his work. He clearly empathises with those who have died alone and surly foresees a similar fate in his own future. Nevertheless he takes comfort in the knowledge that these souls are not forgotten, not by him at least.
May is presented with a case that hits him a little too close to home, literally and figuratively, when a corpse is found in the building across from his own. The body is that of a Mr. Billy Stoke and he is found in a flat that consists of little more than empty bottles, old records and an antique clock. Amongst his belongings is an album containing the photos of a little girl, presumably his daughter. Using what little other memorabilia he finds, May commences to try and find Stoke’s daughter (Joanne Froggatt) and perhaps other loved ones who might want to attend the funeral. His objective becomes all the more essential when he is informed by his boss (Andrew Buchan) that he is being let go and that Stoke shall be his last case. In May’s absence the morgue shall become a place where unclaimed corpses are simply cremated without any regard for the individual and where ashes are dumped carelessly into indiscriminate ditches. It is therefore vital to May that he should allow one more soul to be given a proper burial and a decent send off.
His search proves more and more intriguing as he meets those who knew Billy Stoke in life and recount tales of the volatile and destructive life that he led and the impact that he had on those who remember him. Before long it becomes all too apparent why Billy Stoke died alone. And yet, regardless of how fruitless his task seems to be, May is nevertheless resolute in his quest to track down Stoke’s daughter.
Eddie Marsan delivers a solemn and graceful performance as John May. He portrays a man of an astonishingly caring nature, showing an extraordinary commitment to total strangers. Every day he becomes immersed in the lives of people whom he never has and never will meet. He does all this perhaps out of a sense of his own mortality. He anticipates for himself a lonely death that shall go unnoticed, unmourned and unremembered and so perhaps he needs to believe that, when his time comes, someone out there will care. His boss tries to convince him of the futility of his actions, insisting that they are dead and that nobody cares about them. But John May cares because, by God, somebody has to.
Still Life is a touching, bittersweet film that elegantly explores the themes of solitude and death. It touches upon the subject of the impact that a life can leave, even in the most unexpected of places. As Billy Stoke lay in his home breathing his last breath, he could never have imagined that his death could have such a profound effect on a perfect stranger. He could never have dreamed that such a man would care enough to ensure that his passing would not go unnoticed nor his memory forgotten. Pasolini has done an admirable job of telling a poignant story that tackles the dismal subject of death with a venerable level of compassion, empathy and grace.