There is a peculiar meeting at the heart of Living, one hidden in plain sight by the film’s well-to-do 1950s British setting – the somewhat unexpected union of two great minds from the other side of the world, in Japanese-British literary phenom Kazuo Ishiguro and master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. The most revered of all Japanese filmmakers – perhaps the most revered filmmaker, period – once made a film called Ikiru, a smaller scale work than he is perhaps known for, but one that packs an astonishing emotional wallop. Over seventy years later, Ishiguro has adapted the story, and has relocated its setting to London, perhaps a reflection of the writer’s diasporic roots as one born in Nagasaki but who grew up in England.
The story of Ikiru is a good fit for what we may conceive of England during this period. World War II is still only a few years gone, and the liberation of the sixties is not yet sweeping the streets. As in the original film, Living focuses on a bureaucrat, one who has toiled at the same monotonous governmental job for much of his life, and whose idling, slumbering spirit is jolted back into action by a terminal cancer diagnosis. The film is directed by Oliver Hermanus, who is not a filmmaker of Kurosawa’s standing – who could be? – but who dresses up the film in handsome, thoughtful images that give Living a painterly feel, at once a boon to the director’s cinematic bonafides and a detriment to the film’s ultimate mission.
Knowingly slight and low-key, Oliver Hermanus’ British redo of a Kurosawa classic is most notable for giving veteran Bill Nighy a vehicle worthy of his dramatic talents. Elsewhere, it’s a respectable affair, though hardly one likely to set your heart ablaze.
As dying bureaucrat Mister Williams, Bill Nighy is an intriguing, magnetic presence, underplaying at all times, speaking quietly and respectfully, rarely letting his true feelings show. Indeed, Nighy suggests Mister Williams may not even register his true feelings himself, so cushioned from the world has he been for so long. Nighy has been a boisterous presence in British cinema, most commonly deployed for comic means, though perhaps he is most well-known for his fearsome turn as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Nighy has rarely had a chance to truly flex his dramatic chops, however, and Living most compellingly serves as a vehicle for these. We lean in when Nighy is on screen, trying to pick up clues as to his life, and where he’s come from. Cunningly, the film keeps Williams at arms’ length – the first part of the film and the final third are seen through the eyes of those that know Williams, and are attempting to piece together the mystery of the man.
Ishiguro’s clever triptych of a script ensures that we are never too close. It’s a narrative device that works well to keep viewers intrigued, though it’s certainly ironic that for a film about rediscovering joie de vivre, its execution rarely strays from ‘respectful’ and ‘somewhat distant’. Everything about Living is handsomely mounted, from script to performance to cinematography, and yet when the final act arrives – a barnstormer of emotion in Ikiru – we haven’t had the time necessary to be truly moved by what’s on-screen. There’s a formal, instinctual understanding that what we are seeing is moving, I suppose, but Living stops short of truly achieving that at a gut level. Living is most effective as a showcase for a fine actor’s undersung talents, but for a truly transcendent experience, the original still holds the crown.
Living in cinemas now.
Movie title: Living (Hermanus, 2022)
Movie description: Knowingly slight and low-key, Oliver Hermanus’ British redo of a Kurosawa classic is most notable for giving veteran Bill Nighy a vehicle worthy of his dramatic talents. Elsewhere, it’s a respectable affair, though hardly one likely to set your heart ablaze.
Date published: March 16, 2023
Country: United Kingdom
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro, Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Director(s): Oliver Hermanus
Actor(s): Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp