Living review – Bill Nighy tackles life and death in exquisitely sad drama
A gentle and poignant Kazuo Ishiguro-scripted remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru about a man dealing with a terminal diagnosis
Wed 2 Nov 2022 14.50 GMT
The terrible conversation in the hospital consulting room – that final rite of passage – is the starting point for this deeply felt, beautifully acted movie from screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro and director Oliver Hermanus: a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, or To Live.
A buttoned-up civil servant works joylessly in the town planning department; he is a lonely widower estranged from his grasping son and daughter-in-law. In the original, he was Mr Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura. Now he is Mr Williams, played by Bill Nighy.
Approaching retirement, his supposed reward for a life of pointless tedium, Mr Williams receives a stomach-cancer diagnosis with one year to live. And now he realises that he has been dead until this moment. After a mad and undignified attempt at boozy debauchery in the company of a louche writer (Tom Burke), Mr Williams realises there is one thing he might still achieve: forcing the city authorities to build the modest little children’s playground for which local mothers have been desperately petitioning and which he and his colleagues have been smugly preventing with their bureaucratic inertia.
Through sheer force of will, and astonishing his co-workers with his deeply unbecoming new urgency and baffling desire to help people, Mr Williams is determined to get the playground built before death closes in.
When Kurosawa’s film came out, it was set in the present day: a fiercely contemporary work about modern Japan and very different from his period dramas. Hermanus and Ishiguro have taken the decision to set it in the 1950s as well, and so ingeniously recasting it as a historical piece: Nighy’s melancholy functionary works in the postwar London county council. He is ramrod straight in his pinstripe suit and bowler, an English gentleman through and through, whereas Shimura’s Mr Watanabe in Tokyo was doubled over with the pain of stomach cancer, in a parodic and deepening bow of Japanese respect.
Nighy is heartbreakingly shy and sensitive, his refined, almost birdlike profile presented to the camera in occasional stark and enigmatic closeups. This is a man who has had to suppress a natural wit and affectionate raillery all his life in the service of a dull job which meant nothing. His poignantly damaged rebirth has been caused by his diagnosis, and also his platonic yet nonetheless scandalous infatuation with a female junior: the innocently flirtatious Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), who entrances him, perhaps chiefly because she is quitting this dull office and trying something new. Meanwhile, a young man just starting there, played by Alex Sharp, intuits Mr Williams’s pain and sees how he himself might wind up the same way, out of unexamined loyalty to this older generation’s self-sacrificial woes.
Ishiguro has jettisoned the enigmatic, almost Capraesque voiceover from Kurosawa’s film, lost also the local gangsters that Watanabe faces down with his new, reckless courage of cancer. Maybe they seemed too Greeneian in 50s Britain. He has found a sweeter, more positive interpretation of the film’s final scenes, and a redemptive love affair among the younger generation, but kept the central structural coup in Ikiru, positioning the moment of the civil servant’s death so that we see all the besuited functionaries bickering and posturing after Mr Williams is gone, like Ivan Ilych’s colleagues in Tolstoy’s story or the people divvying up Scrooge’s bed linen in A Christmas Carol.
I was sorry that Ishiguro removed my favourite moment from Ikiru, when the civil servant, in a flash of existential panic, realises that he cannot think of any specific thing that has happened in his 30 years’ employment. It has all passed like a swift, featureless dream. But Ishiguro makes an inspired adjustment to the children’s playground itself – with Mr Williams noting that though some children are badly behaved and tantrum-prone when they are called away by their mothers, that is better than being one of those children who just hopelessly wait for playtime to end. In Living, the playground is not simply the widow’s-mite gift the civil servant has poignantly handed over to the community before his death. With its humble little swing set and roundabout, it is a symbol of everyone’s brief attempt at living.
This is a film which resonated in my mind, with its perennial question: isn’t it possible to achieve Mr Williams’s passionate dedication without the terminal illness? After all, haven’t we all got that same mortal prognosis? Or is the terrible paradox that you need to be told what you know already but were trying not to think about? A gentle, exquisitely sad film.
Living screened at the Sundance film festival and is released in the UK on 4 November.
Living review: Bill Nighy delivers an almost startling transformation in this beautiful period drama
In a performance tipped for Oscar attention, the British actor sheds his trademark, twinkling charisma like snakeskin
Wednesday 02 November 2022 16:41
Dir: Oliver Hermanus. Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke. 12A, 102 minutes.
Ikiru, in its plaintive modernity, may not be the most widely recognisable of Akira Kurosawa’s films. It can’t be slotted so neatly beside the savage violence and heroic ideals of his historical films, Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) or Ran (1985). But the 1952 drama’s message, that a worthy legacy can be built from the tiniest and most fleeting of things, has endured. It’s encapsulated in the single image of a dying bureaucrat (played by Takashi Shimura) singing to himself as he sits on the swingset of the playground he helped build. Decades later, it’s an image that’s been reframed but barely rethought by South African director Oliver Hermanus, Nobel Prize-winning screenwriter Ishiguro Kazuo and actor Bill Nighy with Living. But, like the bureaucrat’s cherished swingset, that vague feeling of inconsequence shouldn’t make much difference. What does it matter if a film isn’t necessarily built to last? Living still has its compelling beauty.
Hermanus’s film is set in the Fifties, making it a period piece rather than a contemporary portrait as Ikiru was. It also takes place halfway around the world in London. Nighy’s bureaucrat, Mr Williams, is dying of stomach cancer. He’s spent the majority of his life in the same job at London County Hall, its monotony as constant as the piles of paperwork that pen him into his desk. It’s a necessary bit of mess, his young employee Ms Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) warns him, since without them “people suspect you of not having anything very important to do”.
Following his diagnosis, Mr Williams seeks existential comfort not from his own son, who he insists “has his own life”, but from a Brighton louche (Tom Burke) and the cheery Ms Harris. He invites the latter out to the movies and then for a drink, while confessing that he doesn’t feel able to go home (read: be alone) quite yet. She worries he’s developed a strange infatuation. But in reality, Mr Williams seems convinced that proximity to youth might be able to stave off his own mortality. “I have no special quality,” Ms Harris insists. He will have to seek meaning elsewhere.
Much of the artfulness of Living does, in part, feel borrowed from Ikiru. Here the chaotic symphony of city life is rendered not through car horns but the steady beat of commuter footsteps, surging back and forth along the same daily paths. Those towering paper stacks slice through frames, isolating its characters, who are sometimes made to look as small and crushable as ants. Hermanus ruminates on these images a little more than Kurosawa might. He already knows their power, and allows cinematographer Jamie D Ramsay to bathe them in a soft, milky light.
Crucially, we are not told of Mr Williams’s condition up front, as Ikiru does through its introductory narration. Instead, we’re introduced to him through the eyes of Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp), a new hire at the office – specifically, in a shot of Mr Williams as seen through a train window, appropriately framed by a circle of morning frost. Nighy, too, has shed his trademark, twinkling charisma like snakeskin. What lies beneath is something almost spectral in its stillness, a man already half-dead and certainly deserving of Ms Harris’s secret nickname of “Mr Zombie”. It’s an almost startling transformation for the actor, a standout performance of an already much-lauded career. His contributions help guide Living on its muted but no less emotive journey to that singular image of a man, renewed, alone on a swingset. Hermanus is more than happy for his film to live in the shadows of Kurosawa’s. There’s still much to savour.
‘Living’ is in cinemas from 4 November
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