Review: 'Still Life'
Joanne Froggatt and Eddie Marsan in "Still Life." (Tribeca Films)

Actors serve at the pleasure and the mercy of the roles they inhabit. Throughout the watery character study "Still Life," the ace English character man Eddie Marsan operates like a minimalist treasure hunter, seeking out little nuggets of truth and humane wit where he can find them.

Many of us first reckoned with Marsan in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" (2008), in which he played Sally Hawkins' scary driving instructor. Certainly the actor, puffy of face, limpid of eye and always a little moist around the lips, has size and power, and even in terrible stuff like the Guy Ritchie "Sherlock Holmes" movies, where he's the boobish copper Lestrade, he's someone you're glad shows up and does his job, reliably and well.


"Still Life" is a very different story, small and quiet and, unfortunately, airless. In writer-director Uberto Pasolini's story, the Marsan character, John May, is coming to the unwanted end of his 22-year career with a London council office. His job, like that of the wily character actor, is a sort of treasure hunter; he locates the next of kin to the recently deceased, whose bodies, in many cases, have been wasting away for days, even weeks.

Mr. May, whose fastidious nature is revealed in the way he peels an apple, receives his layoff notice early in the picture. But he has one more case to settle, involving a body discovered in a flat across from May's own apartment. The deceased, one Billy Stoke, died alone, but scrapbooks and photos May finds in the flat reveal a secret life, one May does not wish to leave unexplored.

Eventually "Still Life" brings together Stoke's estranged daughter (Joanne Froggatt, "Downton Abbey") with the kindly May, whose life has been lived too long among effects of those no longer living. Pasolini's sense of direction and order is all too clear. He holds the audience by the hand every second, offering no ambiguities, no surprises. Marsan's technical precision as an actor is formidable, and he's wonderful to watch. But when the material's synthetic, as it is here, you wish Marsan could bust loose at the expense of the movie's obsessively orderly nature.

"Still Life" - 2 stars

No MPAA rating (some language)

Running time: 1:33

Opens: Friday

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