By Noah Gittell:
They say it’s a fool’s errand to remake a classic film, but sometimes it takes such a fool to pull off the impossible. Consider the case of “Living”, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film “Ikiru” that transfers the action — and I use the term loosely — from post-war Japan to post-war England. While the resulting film doesn’t quite measure up to Kurosawa’s, it succeeds all the same through its impeccable, thoughtful craft and keen sense of purpose. Much like its protagonist, it’s a film that seeks the best of humanity, the kind that translates in any language.
Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), a lonely government bureaucrat, learns in the most English way possible that he has only a few months left to live. “It’s never easy, this,” says his doctor, breaking the bad news. “Quite,” replies Williams. That’s all there is to be said between them. Mr. Williams has crafted for himself a life of quiet dignity and repressed emotions. A full-body stiff upper lip. The news does shake him, however, inspiring him to suddenly go errant from his job in the public works department, where his small cadre of coworkers offer subdued alarm at his rare absence.
And what does he do with his remaining days? It’s the only question that matters. In a sense, he takes a condensed tour through life itself: he parties with a young roustabout (Tom Burke) and when that has run its course, forges, perhaps, his first meaningful friendship with a former employee Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood). Eventually, he turns back to his work, where he puts aside his feet-dragging tendencies and, for once, sets out to accomplish a few meaningful things.
“Living”could be seen as a philosophical text, an earnest search for meaning that does indeed find resolution. Or it could be seen as a historical document on the identity crisis that afflicted post-war England; there is both a palpable grief that pervades the film (even before Williams’s diagnosis) as well as an urgent, ambiguous need to take action.
What elevates “Living”, however, from didacticism is its focus on the inner life of Mr. Williams, brought gloriously to the surface by Nighy. The actor best known for to many for playing the aging cad in “Love Actually” finds a new frequency here as an English gentleman whose sudden desire to live leaves him painfully exposed. To call his performance restrained would be putting it mildly. Mr. Williams has spent a lifetime holding himself hostage, and a full-throated embrace of life would seem implausible. His attempts to break free are only conveyed through a raised eyebrow, a wrinkled smile, or a voice that creaks when raised above a whisper. It’s the kind of role Nighy has long deserved, and a career-best performance.
The rest of the cast supports him well. Even as Margaret tentatively embraces her new friendship, Wood satisfyingly summons the internal alarm bells that persist whenever an older man befriends a young woman. It’s a complex performance that deepens our understanding of the protagonist. The other characters are well-drawn but exist mostly in silos; Williams never lets them get close to him, so neither do we. The exception is Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), a newcomer to the office — it very well might be his first job — who seems to remind Williams of himself at a young age, before he settled into a life of restraint and inaction. Sharp is a charming presence onscreen, evoking the awkward ebullience of a child first permitted to sit at the grownup table, but also standing on the courage of youth to inject a new idea where needed. Peter and Margaret share a vivacity, and you’ll find yourself rooting for the kids to get together, if only to bring a little joy to this stuffy old England.
As close as we may feel to these characters, “Living” is still defined by a sense of observance. Many shots by cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay feel like museum pieces, with characters often framed just off-center in order to draw attention to their rigidity. The shimmering piano score byEmilie Levienaise-Farrouch hints at another world, like the sun glancing off the ocean. These touches feel orchestrated by writer Kazuo Ishiguro and director Oliver Hermanus, neither of whom were born in England but have made it their home. Neither insiders nor outsiders, you can see how they might identify with the protagonist, who is both of the world and outside it, balancing on the middle rung between life and death (a co-worker nicknames William “Mr. Zombie”).
The creators, with their hearts at home in the sea of uncertainty, bring a beautiful, rare thing to life. Ishiguro’s understanding of the era — his award-winning novel “The Remains of the Day”is perhaps the best representation of English repression — allows the plot to feel as if it is sprung naturally from its characters’ innermost fears and desires, while Hermanus orchestrates the delicate tonal balance. “Living”is a winning blend of royal portrait and bold expressionism, transcending its source material to create something wild and new. It’s a gorgeous film that encourages — nay, requires — you to look past its surfaces at the life brimming underneath.