A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru, that itself was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Living boasts an illustrious lineage. Amazingly, it more than lives up to its predecessors, putting a fittingly mid-century British spin on its heartbreaking and inspiring tale about a lonely professional who, at the end of his days, discovers a long-forgotten purpose.
Beautifully directed by Oliver Hermanus (Moffie), from a screenplay by acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go), it’s a worthy reimagining of Kurosawa’s drama—and one that features, courtesy of star Bill Nighy, as superb a performance as you’re likely to see in 2022. (It hits theaters Dec. 23.)
When we first spy Mr. Williams (Nighy), it’s through the window of a commuter train taking well-dressed businessmen—all of them in similar pin-striped suits and bowler hats, clutching slender briefcases—to 1953 London for their daily toil. With a stern, fixed countenance, equally severe body language, and a low, gravelly voice that speaks in clipped cadences, Williams’ appearance indicates that he’s a stuffy man with whom one does not trifle.
Even before recognizing this first-hand, Williams’ newest underling at the County Hall, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), learns of his superior’s reputation from his coworkers Middleton (Adrian Rawlins), Hart (Oliver Chris), and Rusbridger (Hubert Burton), who join him on his trip to the city. Once at the office, they all take cues from their boss—as does colleague Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood)—and quietly and efficiently tend to the public works files that never seem to get where they’re supposed to go, and thus instead take up permanent residence in desk piles affectionately referred to as “skyscrapers.”
Wakeling’s first day on the job is depressingly instructive, thanks to an assignment to aid three women on their quest to get approval for their petition for a children’s playground. The foursome’s journey around the building is a case study in bureaucratic circuitousness and pass-the-buck stasis, with no one willing to assume responsibility and everything ending up precisely where it began. In such a system, progress is deliberately thwarted by indifference.
A surprising revolution, however, begins with a disturbing piece of news: at a follow-up doctor’s appointment, Williams hears that his cancer prognosis is dire, and that he only has six months (nine at the most) to live. This bombshell barely causes a ripple on Williams’ stony face, but in his eyes, it detonates forcefully. Its sparks linger when he returns home to think of yesteryear while sitting motionless and silently in the dark, thereby giving his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) a start.
Williams is, for all intents and purposes, dead inside, and thus he can only wryly smile when he’s informed by Harris that her pet nickname for him is “Mr. Zombie.” Harris makes this disclosure only after Williams’ mundane existence begins to rupture, first with his decision to skip work—and take out his life savings—and visit the beach, where he meets a writer named Sutherland (Tom Burke) who takes him on a nocturnal tour of warm drinking establishments and carnivalesque burlesque shows. Later, he decides to refrain from returning to the office.
It’s while playing hooky that he runs into Harris and agrees to write her a recommendation for a new job over lunch—an encounter that turns into an afternoon spent walking through the city and chatting in the park that arouses the gossipy attention of locals and disapproving Fiona.
Hermanus’s direction places an emphasis on constricting framing (kitchen shelves, piles of papers) and diagonal lines (staircase railings, urban sidewalks). In tandem with Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s mournful and moving 1950s-style orchestral score, his visuals contribute to a weighty, oppressive air that’s echoed by Nighy’s burdened-by-grief visage.
The actor embodies Williams as a morose byproduct of a time and place that prizes stiff-upper-lip reserve and prim-and-proper decorum, which—as with the natty attire that is this world’s official uniform—function as figurative prisons. Only in finally articulating his feelings does Williams set himself free from these self-imposed chains. In doing so, he manages to comprehend not only the opportunities he’s squandered, but the necessity of doing something consequential with the fleeting time he has left.
Living is, at heart, a melodrama about mortality and the regret, sorrow, and joy begat by facing impermanence, and thanks to its habitual understatement, it earns every one of its powerfully poignant moments. Hermanus’ direction is at once studious and deeply empathetic, and the same holds true for Nighy’s turn, which proves a model of tightly measured expressiveness.
“Williams’ saga is an odyssey of at-death’s-door rebirth that’s free of maudlin manipulations.”
When his persistently pursed lips turn upwards into a faint smile, it resonates as a small explosion of emotion, even though that grin is often accompanied by a gaze of far-off wistfulness. Williams’ saga is an odyssey of at-death’s-door rebirth that’s free of maudlin manipulations, with each step along the widower’s journey defined by a rigorous attention to the violence of cold apathy and, also, the euphoria of meaningful social engagement.
If Living is perhaps slightly less poetic than Ikiru, it largely captures that forefather’s lyrical melancholy and hopefulness. Per tradition, this gently optimistic story concludes on a nighttime playground swing in the snow with a vision of contentment that’s nothing short of shattering. Yet even before it reaches its unforgettably bittersweet finale, the film has conveyed the other way in which Williams’ example has transformed those around him—namely, with regards to young Wakeling, whose eyes are opened to the corrosiveness of efficient callousness, as well as the wondrous possibilities of seizing the precious few days he, and everyone else, receives.
True to the material’s unfussy form, Wakeling’s budding relationship with Harris is more suggested than outwardly spoken, just as Williams’ awakening, and evolution, are first evoked by a drunken barroom Scottish song that the elderly man sings with a hoarse croak (necessitating accompaniment from the pianist) that soon gives way to an elegant croon. Clipped and cool and yet brimming with urgent longing, shame, and compassion, Living proves not only a portrait of individual rebirth, but of the profound change wrought by small kindnesses.