Living is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru, which was based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which was written in 1886. Surprisingly, it does better than its predecessors. It gives the sad and inspiring story of a lonely professional who finds a long-forgotten purpose at the end of his life a wonderful mid-century British spin.
It’s a good remake of Kurosawa’s drama, beautifully directed by Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) from a screenplay by famous author Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go), and Bill Nighy gives his best performance of 2022. (Dec. 23)
Mr. Williams, played by Bill Nighy, is first seen in 1953 London on a commuter train with well-dressed businessmen carrying slim briefcases. Williams has a stuffed-up face, stiff body language, and a deep, gravelly voice. When he talks, his sentences are short and sharp.
Peter Wakeling, Williams’ newest employee at County Hall, is played by Alex Sharp. His coworkers Middleton (Adrian Rawlins), Hart (Oliver Chris), and Rusbridger (Hubert Burton), who go with him to the city, tell him about Williams’ reputation.
They all do what their boss, Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), tells them to do, and they do it quietly and well with the public works files that never seem to get where they’re supposed to go and end up in piles called “skyscrapers” on their desks.
Wakeling’s first day on the job is both sad and helpful, as she helps three moms ask for a playground for their kids. The four people’s trip around the building is a great example of how bureaucracy works. No one takes responsibility, and everything ends up back where it started. In such a system, people who don’t care about making progress do so on purpose.
But at a follow-up appointment, Williams’s doctor tells him that his cancer is getting worse and that he only has six to nine months to live. This news hits Williams like a bomb. When he gets home and sits still and silent in the dark to think about the day before, he wakes up his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran).
Williams doesn’t like it when Harris calls him “Mr. Zombie” because he is dead inside. Harris comes to this conclusion after Williams’ ordinary life starts to fall apart, starting with his decision to stop working and spend his life savings on a trip to the beach, where he meets a writer named Sutherland (Tom Burke) who takes him on a nighttime tour of warm drinking places and carnival-like burlesque shows. Then, he decides to not go to work.
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He meets Harris while he’s skipping school and agrees to write her a job reference over lunch. This leads to an afternoon of walking around the city and talking in the park, which draws the attention of gossipy locals and a disapproving Fiona.
Hermanus focuses on small frames (like kitchen shelves and stacks of papers) and diagonal lines (staircase railings, urban sidewalks). Together, his graphics and Emilie Levienaise’s sombre orchestral music from the 1950s make a heavy, sad atmosphere that matches the look of grief on Bill Nighy’s face.
Williams is portrayed by the actor as a depressed product of a time and place that values stiff-upper-lip reserve and prim-and-proper decorum, which, along with the official uniform of this world, act as metaphorical prisons. By letting out his feelings, Williams breaks these chains that he put on himself. He knows he’s missed chances and needs to make the most of the time he has left.
Living is a melodrama about death and the regret, sadness, and joy that come with accepting that things will change, and its constant understatement makes every heartbreaking moment worth it. The way Hermanus directs and the way Nighy acts are both careful and sensitive.
Even when his lips are tight and he gives a small smile, it sounds like a small explosion of emotion and is usually accompanied by a faraway, sad look. Williams’ story of rebirth at the edge of death is not filled with sentimentality. Each step of the widower’s journey is marked by a strict focus on the violence of cold apathy and the excitement of meaningful social involvement.
Living captures Ikiru’s lyrical sadness and hope, though it does so in a less poetic way. This sweetly hopeful book ends with a picture of a happy child on a snowy playground swing that breaks your heart. The movie also shows how young Wakeling has been influenced by Williams’s actions. He learns how harmful efficient callousness is and how wonderful it is to make the most of the few days he and everyone else have.
Wakeling’s growing relationship with Harris is shown more than told, just as Williams’ awakening and change are first shown by a drunken Scottish song he sings in a bar with a hoarse croak that soon turns into an elegant croon. Living shows personal rebirth and the big changes that can come from small acts of kindness.
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