From the creaky, throwback colors of the opening credits to Oliver Hermanus’ Living, the filmmaker’s take on Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is upfront about its nostalgic approach to the serious material. Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) is not a modern man in any sense. He’s a bit of a relic even in his post-WWII London, a stoic chasing the grand gentleman ideal to the detriment of his own happiness. Nobel-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro adapts the beloved examination of mortality with a specifically British bent, giving Nighy room for an understated and impactful performance while perhaps too deeply attributing the movie’s larger philosophical points to a stiff and overly restrained national identity.
Williams works for the government, leading his Public Works team as they dither their respective stacks of papers from column A to column B. The youthful energies of newcomer Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp) and the department’s sole female employee Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) can barely power a few jokey remarks in such a soul-sucking environment. They wither under hard stares from joyless bureaucrats, whose shared day-to-day seems to involve passing whatever buck might foolishly land on their desks. It’s a depressing labyrinth, erected as a testament to futility and observed through a montaged tour Wakeling gives a group of women hoping to turn a local cesspool into a playground. Jaunty piano accompanies the fruitless run-around, the discordant juxtaposition as jarring as the series of department heads that greet inquiring members of the public with deeply polite, extremely British versions of “fuck off.”
This is the wheel-spinning world in which Williams is lord and ruler, his power and money meaning nothing as he learns that he will not sit atop its self-limited mediocrity for much longer. Williams has a terminal illness and spends Living looking his dwindling life in the eye. It’s an inherently melodramatic notion, one that’s sentimentality would be overpowering if not for Nighy’s dignified restraint. He’s shot as a statue, still and stoic and sometimes framed from the neck up, as if his wizened face was on a coin rather than a buttoned-up body. Even his composure, interrupted with long-gestating tremors of repressed despair, cannot completely ground the film’s anglicized rendition of “Live Like You Were Dying.”
But if Ikiru’s similarly afflicted salaryman “might as well be a corpse,” then Williams’ office nickname as “Mr. Zombie” fits—even if its anachronistic usage is jarring. Nighy’s shuffling desperation is punctuated by last-ditch grasps at fun—at meaning—as he cracks a smile when playing a carnival claw machine or breaks down as he serenades a barroom with a ballad. Those he takes inspiration from, including Wood’s bubbly and optimistic would-be restaurant manager and Tom Burke’s scene-stealing back alley bon vivant, are barely more energetic than he is. But in Hermanus’ control over his quiet cast, and in a few stylish black-and-white trips down memory lane, there is room for detail to come through. These are not as weepy or affecting as befit the genre, but there is skillful sadness on display.
Yet, Living’s extended epilogue tacks on such a long and sad tail of emotional explanation that its slogging finish saps all the pathos Nighy’s performance imbues. Ishiguro and Hermanus already convey the necessary and well-familiar emotions effectively (we all know about Scrooge’s last-minute come-to-Jesus attitude adjustment) without undercutting things with more and more and more reminders of death, of futility, of the arguable merits of making small differences in life.
While certainly not an epiphany like the original, Nighy makes Living worthwhile through sheer force of will. In the film’s picturesque, composed, nearly stagnant beauty, he finds something honest in repression. He is part of this stoic world, one that seems hellbent on denying itself of its pleasures, and he effectively functions as a warning to the rest of us—even if his movie keeps tacking on appendices to his eulogy.
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro
Stars: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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