NOW IN THEATERS! In Living, Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) humorlessly goes about his existence as a midcentury London bureaucrat until he gets a shock from his doctor. The revelation that he only has six months to live causes him to realize that he hasn’t actually been living at all and doesn’t know how to.
As the film begins, we follow the young and wide-eyed Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) on his first day of work at the London bureaucracy. His attempts at innocent conversation are nipped in the bud as his co-workers inform him that nothing but solemn utterances will be tolerated, a tone established at the top by their boss, Mr. Williams. Wakeling’s optimism about his new job is quickly dashed as he witnesses the inner workings of the local government, where proposals as simple as building a park are shuffled around from department to department in an endless loop.
After a visit to the doctor, Mr. Williams learns he has cancer but can’t bear to tell what remaining family he has of his condition nor his co-workers. So he simply stops coming to work and heads out on a day and night of debauchery with a stranger. When this leaves him unfulfilled, a chance encounter with a young co-worker, Ms. Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), takes him in a new direction. She is kind and caring and has escaped the bureaucracy after realizing it isn’t for her.
“…Mr. Williams learns he has cancer…so he simply stops coming to work…”
If the plot of Living sounds familiar, that’s because it is a faithful adaptation of Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa gets co-credit for the screenplay, which has been re-set in 1950s London by writer Kazuo Ishiguro. Surprisingly, the transplantation of the story works. At least in the 1950s, both cultures shared an expansive bureaucracy, a culture of devoted businessmen, and a general disdain for the public expression of emotion, especially by men.
Interestingly, director Oliver Hermanus is South African, though he did go to film school in London. It is a bold move to remake a movie by one of the most legendary directors in film history, but Hermanus manages to at least hold his own here with some gorgeous shots of steam trains passing through the countryside, claustrophobic offices, and half-lit faces.
The cast of Living is wonderful, but let’s be honest, this is 100% the Bill Nighy show. The film hangs completely on his performance, and it should be no surprise that he knocks it out of the park. He is wonderful in every role, but it is delightful to see him completely carry a character-based Oscar-bait film. With life-or-death stakes, there can be a tendency to go maudlin, and Hermanus almost takes us in that direction with a few musical cues and lingering shots. Still, the delightfully understated performances by the British cast, anchored by Nighy, keep things reined in.
In true English fashion, just the tiniest shift in demeanor reveals that there’s an iceberg of emotion under the surface. You won’t see any overwrought tears from Nighy, but just an utterance or a look from him can leave the audience a weeping mess. As such, Living is a good remake and a solid film on its own merits.
Living screened at the 2022 Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals.