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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Still Life

IntroductionStill Life

Still Life was written and directed by Uberto Pasolini and released in the UK in February 2015.  The film centres on a council worker called John May, played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan, whose job it is to try and trace any relatives of individuals who have died alone in the London borough where he works. This illuminates exquisitely the struggle May has with his own demons of loneliness as one wonders whether anyone would do the same for him. Still Life won 17 awards, including one given to Eddie Marsan for best performance in a British Feature Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2014 and one given to Pasolini for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival in 2013.

 

 

The Film

Still Life opens with council worker May trying to track down the relatives of some recently deceased people, and when he succeeds in making contact, asking whether they would like to attend the funeral. Repeatedly it seems that these deceased lonely people have ended up isolated at the end of their lives for a reason, as any family that May traces never wants to be involved. May ends up as the only mourner at their funerals and makes the effort to bring some meaning to the ceremonies by contributing a few personal pieces of information that he has obtained by sifting through the deceased’s personal belongings. It becomes clear that May is himself living an intensely solitary life; his parents are dead, and he is perhaps overly preoccupied with giving the deceased a proper send off because he anticipates that he may face a similar predicament in his own future. He collects photos of the deceased in an album kept at his home, rather like collecting stamps, which he attends to with some relish. He routinely eats tuna and toast for his evening meal and is extremely organised, bound by routines that one suspects have been in place for decades.

 

It is when dealing with the case of a man Billy Stoke, who has died in the nearby block of flats to May’s that he is deeply unsettled by the proximity this death has to his own life. Perhaps triggered by guilt that someone could die alone, in squalor, so near to where he lives, May doubles his efforts to trace Billy’s family. He is motivated by a desire to understand the reasons for Billy’s lonely death, apparently suffering from alcohol dependence. However, his boss delivers some harsh news to John: the council is making him redundant with immediate effect. John pleads successfully for the chance to finish this one last case before he leaves the job. He traces and then visits one of Billy’s past partners, a woman living in Whitby, who informs him that the deceased had a problem with violence and aggression and had left a wife and daughter before meeting her. The woman reveals that she too had a daughter with Billy, after they separated, who he had never known. May learns that Billy’s troubles seemed to start as a soldier serving in active conflict and that he developed the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home. May finally locates Billy’s daughter, Kelly, and they strike up a friendship, which appears to promise some romantic possibilities for two lonely individuals. They arrange to meet again and Kelly finally agrees to attend her father’s funeral. They plan another meeting after the burial ceremony.

 

The end of Still Life is poignant and certainly plays with our emotions but I will not reveal it.

 

 

Relevance to the Field of Mental Health

Still Life considers one of the important topics of our time, loneliness. It offers several portraits of this human predicament and seeks to bring some understanding as to how the situation may have arisen for these different individuals. It highlights that loneliness is often a consequence of a mental illness, such as Billy’s post-traumatic stress disorder that contributed to his estrangement from family, alcohol dependence and homelessness. It also illustrates the association with the obsessional personality of the main protagonist, May, as his difficulty forming an intimate relationship leads to him living a rigid and increasingly solitary existence after the death of his parents.

 

For all professionals working in the field of mental health, this film offers a profoundly empathic experience of the sadness associated with loneliness and examines the reality of death in the context of life lived in solitude. Who mourns the unbefriended? A deeper understanding and appreciation of the effects of loneliness on both physical and mental health are essential if we are to find strategies to combat this problem in our society. As the Campaign to End Loneliness demonstrates, this is a pressing issue that requires our attention now. The campaign’s website provides much useful information about the topic that would complement a viewing of the film.

 

I would encourage everyone to watch this excellent low-key but powerful film.

 

 

•               More information about Still Life can be found at IMDB.

 

•              Still Life is available on DVD and to stream from amazon.co.uk.

 

•              Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida

Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.

 


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