The low budget British film Still Life is about as far as it is possible to get from the Hollywood blockbuster. Eddie Marsan plays John May, a quiet office worker for a local council in London. For 22 years he has been doing the unusual job of trying to trace relatives of people that die in the borough without any immediate family, and to make their funeral arrangements. In most cases no relatives can be found, but Mr May meticulously makes the best arrangements he can for the funerals based on whatever scraps of their lives he can access: their diaries, photo albums, even their pets. The people that he interacts with in his job: funeral directors, cemetery directors, mortuary technicians, all treat him with quiet respect since this is a man who clearly puts far more care into his work than anyone could reasonably expect, even though he will never see any reward for his efforts. Mr May’s personal life is as lonely as most of his deceased clients, living alone in a small flat, without any friends.
One day Mr May is unexpectedly made redundant, and he has one last case to close before he leaves his role. He puts the same meticulous efforts into tracing the family and contacts of this particular deceased person as before, in this case managing to persuade one or two long-lost family members to at least consider attending the funeral of his last client. He impresses the deceased’s daughter with his kindness to such an extent that she gives a gentle hint that, after the funeral, he may strike up some sort of relationship with her. What happens next is unexpected yet feels completely in line with the story arc.
Eddie Marsan’s performance is terrific as the meticulous Mr May, compassionate yet so very ordinary in everything other than the kindness he pours into his job. The camera framing is particularly clever in a number of scenes, and there is enough gentle humour even amongst this tricky subject matter to avoid mawkishness. This is a genuinely moving, poignant film that deserves a wider audience.