Synopsis: In 1950s London, a humorless civil servant decides to take time off work to experience life after receiving a grim diagnosis.
Stars: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke, Adrian Rawlins, Oliver Chris, Hubert Burton, Zoe Boyle, Barney Fishwick
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Running Length: 102 minutes|
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: It’s the little ones that will surprise you. I’d heard through the critical grapevine that Living, an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Japanese film Ikiru, was quite exceptional and that its star Bill Nighy could be a potential dark horse in the Best Actor race. Arriving so late in the discussion, it can be difficult for a smaller, quieter film like Living to turn many heads or upend enough ballots to achieve the type of success its supporters predict. And yet… it’s so spectacularly good that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nighy ride a wave of raves to a slot in the Oscar nominations when they are announced next week.
Adapted from the Kurosawa original by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains of the Day & Never Let Me Go, both of which were turned into haunting films), the time shifts to London shortly after World War II when professional men lined up for work in bowler hats and stiff collars. These men knew the devastation of war, scarred by years of struggle, and now they largely kept to themselves and their families, rarely engaging outside of their inner circle.
Such is the life for widower Williams (Nighy, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu), the head of the London Public Works Department overseeing a small staff of gentlemen and one female (Aimee Lou Wood, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) with ambitions outside of a state job. He’s fallen into a familiar rut of spending little to maintain the bottom line. His son and daughter-in-law have little time for him, so it’s a routine of few surprises he’s following when his doctor gives him a fixed amount of time to live. Initially drawn to keeping his pity party short, he instead takes a different approach to the finality of his time by changing things up in unexpected ways.
Unlike many Oscar hopefuls this year, Living doesn’t hinge on one strong performance. Nighy’s outstanding work is not the only part of Living that makes it a worthwhile watch. Director Oliver Hermanus has surrounded the actor with an equally fine supporting cast and wrapped them up in a handsome production design that gracefully recreates the UK post-WWII. To the credit of all, especially Ishiguro, the film has several surprising detours that keep Living from reaching its destination the way you’d expect it to.
It all comes back to Nighy, though, and while the actor is a dependable presence in every project he turns up in, this falls on a different level of achievement. The layers Nighy has to put on at the film’s beginning, only to pull back slowly and painfully, are a wonder to behold. If you can make it through the actor singing a plaintive Scottish song (twice!) without choking back tears, you are made of stronger stuff than I am. Hermanus allows Nighy’s character, who never takes up too much space, to have center stage, and it’s as moving a movie moment as you’re likely to experience anywhere.
I don’t want you to walk away from this review thinking Living is a sad slog, though, because that would betray the point of the Kurosawa original and what Ishiguro/Hermanus are doing with this remake. There’s a focus on pointing out what a stodgy routine can do to a soul and how making a slight shift can improve your view and the way others see you. We’re put on this earth to celebrate the good, love fiercely, and live our best life while we are able before it’s too late. I can’t imagine any other actor being able to convey this story as well as Nighy has, and his performance in Living should be rewarded in turn.