A bureaucrat yearns for purpose after learning he has months to live in this remake of a Kurosawa classic.
It’s easy to feel skepticism upon the announcement of yet another remake, especially when it’s a reimagining of a classic such as Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru. That’s precisely what writer-director Oliver Hermanus chose for his fifth feature Living, and while there are moments where this British readaptation of a Japanese classic is at times too faithful to its source material, the film still stands on its own thanks to a pitch perfect replication of 1950s British life, an old-fashioned but simple aesthetic and a tremendous performance from Bill Nighy.
Living is a period drama set in 1950s Britain about Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy), an elderly bureaucrat who learns he has terminal cancer and only has months to live. Upon his diagnosis, Rodney strives to find meaning in his existence and enjoy the simple pleasures he’s neglected after a lifetime buried in stacks of paperwork he’s constantly put himself off from reading at the County Hall in which he works.
The dying gentleman indulges in a night of heavy drinking, invites his secretary Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) out to lunch, on walks in the park, and to his weekly night at the movies in order to discover the secrets of living a fulfilled life, all while keeping his looming death a secret from his fellow bureaucrats and his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) who is prodded into receiving his late mother’s inheritance by his demanding wife Fiona (Patsy Ferran).
Living is admittedly a little too faithful to the original as far as story structure is concerned, to the point where some scenes that were perfectly executed in Ikiru are more drawn out in this adaptation such as when a female band of missionaries intend to advocate for the construction of a new playground, only to be sent from one office to the other until they end up in the place where they began. This scene exists in a brilliantly paced montage in the original film while it’s more simplistic in its editing here, lessening its impact.
Despite that, with the work from Kurosawa Production Company and Nobel prize-winning screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, Living stands outside the shadow of the original through a dedication to British sensibilities, which shine through when characters speak in dignified, professional cadences with a vast vocabulary. This also shines through in the depiction of post-WWII life in London, such as in an early scene where Mr. Williams’ new young subordinate Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) is instructed by an older coworker about a rule that there’s “not much fun and laughter at this time of day.”
Meanwhile, the lyrical side of Hermanus’ direction comes through in the visuals; a montage of closeups featuring various surroundings of a nightclub communicates Rodney’s and a barfly’s own disillusionment, while beautifully lit and framed shot compositions shroud Rodney in darkness to emphasize his impending fate, and the colorful beauty of the outside world surrounds him and Mrs. Harris during their interactions together. The film also does a splendid job of getting into the heads of each character; an example of this comes when Mr. Williams recalls the few moments of his life where he felt genuinely fulfilled, from a baseball game he played in as a child to his son returning home from fighting in a war.
The visuals are also aided by gorgeous production and costume design as well as an opening title sequence reminiscent of classical Hollywood, while the digital cinematography does its best to replicate the look of old cinema through saturated colors and stark shadows during the film’s saddest moments. What’s also worth mentioning is the Rashomon-esque editing in the second half that cuts back to the bureaucrats’ final moments working with Mr. Williams when all four of them discuss the sudden change in his demeanor amongst themselves.
The heart of the film, though, is in Bill Nighy’s phenomenal performance that endears viewers to Mr. Williams with facial expressions that convey a lifetime of regret, while interactions with the people he connects with see him converse with noble humanity, while he represses the symptoms of his illness with visible pain, but keeps up the appearance of refined dignity with incredible strength. Nighy takes Mr. Williams on a journey toward an exuberant rebirth along with the viewers who give this beautiful film a chance, after which they will start to re-evaluate their own lives by Living’s poignant conclusion.