Bill Nighy tries to add meaning to his life in Kurosawa remake, Living
Living brings together some of the most loved writing talents of the last 70 or so years. Based on Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru it transports the story from post-war Tokyo to post-war London. With a screenplay written by Nobel prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day) director Oliver Hermanus has lyrical script to work with, in this, his first big studio release.
Mr Williams is manager of the London City Council’s Department of Public Works in the early 1950s. He is a prim and proper man presiding over an austere department that ties up any requests made of it with miles of bureaucratic red tape. His younger employees are all intimidated by him. When he learns that he has terminal cancer and only 6 months to live, he is forced to reevaluate his own life and if he is truly ‘living.’
An encounter with a hard partying writer (Tom Burke) inspires him to let go and have a little fun, while the joie de vivre of his young secretary Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) inspires him to do some good, to try and leave his mark on the world.
It’s a painfully human concept, a worry that could touch as all at some point – this notion that you can wake up one day and not recognize your life. To not know how you got to your present position and wonder that you’ve wasted it. So, to watch Williams transformation from grey curmudgeon to cautious adventurer to caring community figure is heart-warming. More powerful still is watching the ripple effect his actions have on those around him – though Living is not so idealized as to suggest that one man’s good behavior can make everyone better, even if they would so desperately like to be.
I have never seen a modern film that so accurately recreates something vintage quite so well as Living, it’s like a lost film uncovered from the 50s. The costumes, hair and makeup, set design are all exquisite yes. But it’s more than that. It’s a feeling, an air from a different time that sweeps through the film like looking at an old photograph. Oliver Hermanus has captured something genuinely Capra-esque, not just in the plot of Living but in the atmosphere. It reminded me of the first time I watched It’s a Wonderful Life and being transported to different, softer, kinder world. (Despite its cruelties, in both that film and in this.)
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Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s score grabs you by the heartstrings from the off and never let’s go, orchestral swells pushing and pulling emotion from you at just the right moments. It’s the best kind of manipulation. If she’s not Oscar nominated, I’ll eat my hat. If she doesn’t outright win, I’ll be very surprised.
Bill Nighy gives the performance of a lifetime as Williams, imbuing him with quiet compassion and strength while still managing to be achingly vulnerable as he tries to come to terms with his situation. A memorable scene in which he compares the act of dying to being called in from the playground at the end of the day by one’s mother is a gorgeous poetic moment. It’s beautiful writing by Ishiguro yes, delivered with such tenderness as to cut to the very heart of you.
Living is a faithful adaption of Ikiru with all the same key scenes and beats, so you may well ask why anyone felt it necessary to make this film, yet the charm and artistic beauty of it are undeniable. It’s a genuine, life affirming, crowd pleasing, not a dry eye in the house sort of film. The incredible loving skill that has gone into it both behind and Infront of the camera reassures you that this is a film worthy of your tears. Utterly sublime cinema.
Living has been reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is being released on 4th November 2022