What did you have for dinner?
Yt. asks because he can’t remember the last time he cooked himself a warm meal. Currently yt. is chewing on some cornbread with a couple spoonfuls of cold red beans and rice.
So yt. might be able to relate a little with John May, a London clerk charged with finding the relatives and settling the affairs of people found dead and alone. Middle-aged and quiet; struck with a bit of an obsessive-compulsive streak and a creature of habit, May discovers that he’s being fired and resolves to pursue his final case with as much as he can throw at it. Why the question about dinner? He regularly eats a piece of toast and a can of tuna for dinner.
And man, it’s just like the most lonesome thing to see onscreen. True to its name, Still Life is filled with quiet, painterly shots. Whether it’s John May waiting on a screen corner or, yes, toast and tuna arranged carefully on a plate, nothing ever feels out of place.
Were it so for the story, which is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Eddie Marsan does the best he can with a wooden, sentimental script, and he imbues John May with a shy, warm dignity. It’s like he knows how absurd it is to lounge around in a three-piece suit with a pair of raggedy vagrants, taking pulls out of a whiskey bottle, but to laugh would be to miss the point of the exercise. But the moment (like a lot of moments) ends up taking messy swings at profundity which come off as dull platitudes delivered without much conviction. It’s kind of like Still Life doesn’t quite know how to walk the line between bathos and pathos, and ends up not believing in much at all. It does end up rejecting the notion that “funerals are for the living”—something uttered, at one point, by May’s callous boss—but it does so in this weirdly spiritual way. In a movie so focused on the arrangement of physical objects and the settling of mortal affairs, this literally last-minute turn feels unearned.
The movie’s best when it’s just John May trying to get through to people, and people trying to get through to him. There’s a bit where May sits across from Kelly Stokes, a daughter of the deceased played by Joanne Froggatt, and excitedly (maybe more like optimistically?) explains the funeral arrangements he’s making for her father. Soon he trails off and they just smile quietly at each other. I think it’s one of the sweetest things ever committed to film. We could all do with more of that.