Typically I’d roll my eyes every time I see a Western remake of a foreign film, regardless of which country. But I couldn’t resist seeing LIVING because the screenplay is by Kazuo Ishiguro, a British novelist and screenwriter of Japanese descent, who had dreamed of doing a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952). Apparently, Ishiguro even had Bill Nighy in mind when writing the screenplay, which turns out to be such a perfect role for him.
Ikiru means to live or to exist, but Nighy’s Mr. Williams is a man who lives to work all his entire life. The opening scene in 1950s London perfectly establishes Mr. Williams’ character brilliantly by how his office peers and subordinates rever him as they take the train to work every day. It’s the new guy Peter’s (Alex Sharp) first day of work at the office and there’s kind of a mechanical, almost clock-work sensibility to his fellow civil servants who all report to Mr. Williams. A group of five people shares a relatively small space and it’s clear from their interaction that it’s a dull, monotone job where sense of duty is a virtue held above everything else.
It’s not until a grim diagnosis finally shakes Williams to the core and makes him analyze how life has passed him by as he’s too preoccupied with work. No one displays hidden emotions and repressed emotions as enchantingly as the Brits, captured beautifully here by South African director Oliver Hermanus. There’s no weeping or wailing when Williams learns he hasn’t got much time to live, but even in his stillness, his pain and regret are palpable.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Bill Nighy who’s one of the most versatile actors who’s perhaps most well-known here in the States for his larger-than-life performances in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Love, Actually. But I love him in more understated roles such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, About Time, Their Finest, The Bookshop, and most recently, Hope Gap. There’s a refined elegance about Nighy’s performance here, peppered by his amusing frankness and sense of humor. The encounter with a stranger in a cafe, played wonderfully by Tom Burke, is a sweet and indelible moment that reminds you that a meaningful relationship isn’t always measured by how long one knows another. Williams might have worked in the office for decades, but it seems that the people reporting to him barely know just who he is, for he barely let anyone in. His fractured relationship with his only son also speaks to how closed-off he has been.
As Williams takes time off from work, he befriends Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood) who used to work for him at the civil office. At first, it seems that Margaret takes pity on the old man when he asks her to accompany him to dinner, to the movies, etc. but they clearly enjoy each other’s company. Not quite a father-daughter relationship or a May-December romance, but more of a genuine friendship, which is quite refreshing to see. Ultimately, Living is about leaving a legacy by making the most of the opportunities that life throws at you. An earlier scene where the staunchly-bureaucratic city development office gives three civilian women the runaround presents a way for Williams to make his mark and make good for the community.
Now, I can’t compare this to Kurosawa’s original as I haven’t seen it yet, but it seems there’s a clear homage to that, especially in the final scene of the protagonist sitting on a playground swing. Jamie Ramsay‘s cinematography is stunning and evocative, believably capturing the melancholy mood and depicting post-war Britain. The film incorporates vintage newsreel footage that’s been digitally cleaned up in the establishing shots, while the editing style and color scheme are made to look like the film was created in the 50s to enhance its level of authenticity.
Ishiguro’s script has such quiet grace and poignancy that makes you reflect on one’s own life and what we do with the finite time we’re given. Yes, there’s an element of predictability to the story, but Living is the kind of film that favors character development as we see the world through the protagonist’s eyes. Nighy has been nominated for various awards including the Golden Globes, SAG, and BAFTA, and I won’t be surprised at all if he’s shortlisted for the Oscars as well. Living is a heartfelt drama that proves not every remake is bad, on the contrary, this one is exquisite.