The sad irony of Still Life, with the great English character actor Eddie Marsan as a quiet crusader on behalf of those who die alone, isn’t the movie’s title; it’s the abiding indignity of its stress on dignity.
It’s hard to affirm life by leaving out so much of what it really feels like. But writer-director Uberto Pasolini, best known as the originator of The Full Monty, here insists on the manicured, melancholic poise that only exists in semi-precious little films — maybe because they’re routinely rewarded for it (Still Life took four awards from the 2013 Venice Film Festival). Marsan’s character is a sympathetic sort, the solitary soulful bureaucrat whose job of 22 years has been to track down next of kin and arrange final ceremonies, lonely though they inevitably are.
The eulogies he writes, and for which he alone usually is the audience, are gracious guesswork, based on benefits of doubts and artifacts at hand. It’s a job from which he’s eventually sacked, as his fastidiousness isn’t cheap and the plot demands advancement. That at least makes room for Downton Abbey‘s Joanne Froggatt, as always a warming presence to whom the heart goes out, but it also hurries us toward the finale’s double-punch of cheap shots.
Meanwhile, Marsan nearly goes numb nailing his many moments of solemn contemplation, and the production design prioritizes conspicuously blue objects to the point of distraction. When it’s all over, Still Life feels disembodied and perfunctory, like a very respectful eulogy for no one in particular.