This review was originally part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage.
Living is an English adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s film Ikiru, which itself was an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Set in 1950s London in the midst of Britain’s postwar reconstruction, Living tells the story of the final days of Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) following a grim prognosis. Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay largely follows the same narrative structure as Kurosawa’s, but the new setting provides added layers—mirroring elements of Britain’s reconstruction with Williams’ own eleventh-hour reconstruction of the legacy he intends to leave behind.
Nighy’s character is introduced long before he first steps foot in front of the camera. The film opens on Peter Wakeling’s (Alex Sharp) first day with London County Hall’s Public Works department. He boards his train with his new co-workers, Middleton (Adrian Rawlins), Rusbridger (Hubert Burton), and Hart (Oliver Chris) who tell him everything he needs to know about his new boss, Mr. Williams—painting him as this looming, composed, and stalwart fixture of Public Works. This scene comes back into play in the final act of the film and the pay-off is bittersweet.
Director Oliver Hermanus employs a number of lovely directorial choices throughout the film. From the way that he utilizes a mixture of harsh shadows with soft, somber lightning, to the natural way he constructs innately personal and intimate scenes in the midst of dialogue-heavy scenes. Much of this is a clear reflection of his frequent collaborations with his Director of Photography Jamie Ramsay. That familiarity allowed them to work in concert with each other to create a beautiful film that relies so heavily on the humanity of its characters to be conveyed to the audience. When Williams sets off for his appointment with his physician, time slows down as he walks in slow motion away from work. The slow-motion effectively plays into the monotony of his life, while alluding to how quickly life moves as finality approaches. It’s a neat visual clue that is wisely used sparingly, increasing the impact of its utilization.
In an early scene following his diagnosis, Williams sits alone in the relative darkness of his living room. As he ruminates on his life, he sees glimpses of his past like scenes from black and white films. They are comprised of seemingly mundane moments—a sport’s game, a night out—fragments of a life now on the verge of disappearing forever. But isn’t that what life is made up of? Tiny moments that are threaded into the tapestry of our existence?
Rather than returning to work, Williams shirks his responsibilities at County Hall and has a wild night of debauchery and fun with a similarly depressed bohemian writer named Sutherland (Tom Burke). The night out leads him to cross paths with his soon-to-be-former co-worker Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), whose vivacious personality gives him the burst of life he needs to come to terms with at the end of his life. With renewed vigor, he reflects on the monotony of the life he has led—dedicating himself to rebuilding Britain, but never fully committing to his own life.
Williams focuses his remaining weeks on getting a playground built in the ruins of a bombed-out neighborhood. Initially, the project had been brushed aside, deemed unimportant because of the women haranguing County Hall to act on their plans. He recognizes the importance of the playground, the freedom of children playing, and the innocence of childhood, and it seems like a fitting final contribution that mirrors the beginning and end of life neatly.
While it may be a somewhat understated aspect of the film, Wakeling seems to act as a younger variant of Mr. Williams, but in this situation, he has witnessed this profound change of character in someone else, which cast a long shadow over his own future. Everyone who worked in Public Works with Mr. Williams in those final months has been fundamentally transformed by this one small act. But Wakeling, in particular, seems to parallel Williams in a unique way by unknowingly retracing Williams’ steps as he dates Miss Harris—taking her to the boardwalk and the cinema. It’s an intriguing way to show the rippling effect of one small action.
Living begs the question: What are any of us doing with our lives? We get on the train, commute to work, sole meets pavement, pen finds paper. Day after day we commit to being cogs in the machine, but what are we really doing? Will we be remembered with respect and affection, or will we be an inconsequential memory?
Living is ultimately a very somber film that requires its audience to look inward and reflect on the legacy they will one day leave behind. It’s beautiful, haunting, and Nighy gives a tremendously moving performance as he grapples with regrets for a life well spent, but not spent well enough.
Living is now playing in theaters.