Movie Review: “Living” is a Beautifully Realized Adaptation of a Kurosawa Classic
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Writer: Kazuo Ishiguro and Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, and Alex Sharp
Synopsis: In 1950s London, a humorless civil servant decides to take time off work to experience life after receiving a grim diagnosis.
London in the early 1950s; a post-war gloom underscored by that most British of character traits, the stiff upper lip. Standing by platforms, awaiting the train which will carry them into the city, are multitudes of homogenous gentlemen, complete with pinstripe suits and bowler hats. Some gaze blankly into the distance, others fold open their copy of the Times; all have the same demeanor.
This is the world of straight lines and perfectly mannered stoicism in which we meet Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy). Mr. Williams is the perfect embodiment of the British mentality, the personification of class rigidity which was a large part of the culture then. He spends his days as a bureaucrat, pushing stacks of paper indicating planning permits from one tray to another. In this system, as in his life, everything moves very, very slowly. Everything, they say, is as it should be. The one glimpse into Mr. Williams’ personal life – such as it is – comes through his son, with whom he lives yet seems to enjoy no particularly close relationship.
Everything in Mr. Williams’ neatly ordered world changes when he is given a terminal cancer diagnosis by his doctor. “It’s never easy delivering this news” the doctor tells him, to which he simply responds, “quite”. Even the news of an impending death must not broach impropriety. That would not do.
And yet, as he reflects on the life he has lived, something changes in Mr. Williams. The exact nature of his ruminations is never fully revealed, but the impression is that he has spent his time following the rules and is now wondering quite what it was all for. And so the scene is set for Mr. Williams to begin, possibly for the first time in his life, to really live. Fully and unrestrained. In doing so he encounters a drunken raconteur (Tom Burke) concerned solely with drinking and chasing women, a sweet young woman from his office (Aimee Lou Wood) who secretly calls him Mr. Zombie and who yearns for something more than the staid office life into which she has found herself, and an amicable young man (Peter Wakeling) set to follow the same path Mr. Williams himself set upon many years ago.
To add complications to matters, a group of women begin making a nuisance of themselves in the office in an attempt to get planning permission to turn a disused section of their neighborhood into a swing park for the children. Mr. Williams, at first dismissive of such an endeavor, decides to make it a personal mission to see the swing park come to fruition, if it’s the last thing he ever does.
Living is an excellent, exquisite reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, itself an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and adapted by Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun God). Ishiguro had long wanted to adapt Kurosawa’s classic, and his passion for the material shows. The lessons of Tolstoy’s original – of living for others, of the ephemeral nature of life and the meaning to be found in death – is a touchstone in any culture, in any era, and therefore universally adaptable. Ishiguro’s gambit is to move the scene from what was then present day Japan to post-war Britain, juxtaposing the stifling tedium of British values against the opportunities to create meaning and purpose. For all Mr. Williams spends his days in his office grinding the gears of bureaucratic power ever so slowly, there are people out living and thriving. The genius in Living’s script is to show these two examples set side-by-side.
The other masterstroke is in its casting. The story goes that Ishiguro pitched the idea to Bill Nighy one night when they met at a party. Nighy had never seen the original Ikiru, but immediately signed on as soon as he had watched it. It was a good thing that party happened, because it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Nighy as Mr. Williams.
The now legendary British actor carries such an air of debonair wit and yet repressed stoicism that you feel he may have come from the womb in a crisp three piece suit, replete with bowler hat and walking cane. He suffuses Mr. Williams with such quiet force and gradually increasing vulnerability that the viewer can’t help but be carried along on the riptide of his journey. In Nighy’s frequently baleful gaze one is reminded of the oft-used Henry David Thoreau quote about the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Nighy is never less than utterly compelling and convincing.
Elsewhere, Aimee Lou Wood portrays a woman who is virtually the opposite of Mr. Williams. Margaret is cheery, bright, and full of optimism for her future. She presents such a fresh perspective that it’s no wonder Mr. Williams feels drawn to her as he searches for a new meaning in his life. The two develop a wonderful dynamic, with Margaret slowly teasing Mr. Williams from his shell; their gradual, burgeoning friendship provides the emotional core of Living and is perhaps the most affecting part of it.
Tom Burke plays the roguish Sutherland, to whom Mr. Williams first confides his diagnosis and who, having taken pity on the old man, decides to show him the darker side of London. While Burke’s part is small, it is not inconsequential; Sutherland’s effrontery is an excellent counterpoint to the musn’t-say-that attitude of Mr. Williams and his peers. In Sutherland’s never ending quest for pleasure is an avenue for exploration that you sense Mr. Williams has never quite considered and so becomes an intriguing part of his journey. It also leads to one of the more heart rending moments in Living, as a drunken Mr. Williams launches into a haunting rendition of The Rowan Tree – an old Scottish folk song which had this Scottish film reviewer a little misty eyed – with only a piano as an accompaniment.
Finally, a third act change of structure feels initially jarring but turns out to be another masterstroke by Ishiguro as we move from the idea of meaning and purpose to the exploration of legacy and what we leave to others after our time is done. It is all handled with such graceful care by director Oliver Hermanus and deftly ties its themes together for a gut-puncher of a finale.
It certainly won’t be for everyone – Living is told at a slow pace, with much more meaning in what is left unsaid, and its unshowy, no-frills filmmaking, including a 1.33:1 aspect ratio meant to evoke the period alongside cinematographer Jamie Ramsay’s boxy framing, might put viewers off. However, surrender yourself to this quiet, contemplative piece of cinema and you might just find yourself thinking about it days after the curtain comes down.