LIVING – Film Review

In early 1950s London, young Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharpe) begins his first day of work as a civil servant. He is introduced to his no-nonsense co-workers, their attractive and joyful secretary, Ms. Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), and the head of their department, Mr Williams (Bill Nighy).

Mr Williams fosters a culture of bureaucracy and red tape. When a proposal for a new playground can’t be shunted off to other departments it is easier just filed away to be forgotten.

Williams’ approach to life is just as dry and without emotion. An elderly widower devoid of passion who now only wishes to maintain his office. This is until he receives the terrible diagnosis that he has less than a year to live. Initially devastated, he turns to the happiest person he knows for advice, Ms. Harris. What begins is a journey to start enjoying what time he has left, if only he knew how.

LIVING has the impossible task of reimagining the 1952 Akira Kurosawa classic Ikuru (“to live”) for modern audiences. The film is in good hands however, with a screenplay by Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. The wise decision was made to not so much remake Kurosawa’s brilliant 143-minute film, but to boil it down to its basics. Giving us a concise, intimate portrait of a man at the end of his days.

Director Oliver Hermanus immediately hits us with waves of nostalgia. From the retro themed opening credits to the classic aspect ratio, the movie is filmed to feel authentic to the 1950s setting. Much of LIVING is shot taking full advantage of the locations and set design. Often the characters themselves only taking up a fraction of the screen with the true focus being on the beautiful world around them. Meanwhile, three-time Oscar winning costume designer Sandy Powell works her magic creating period accurate clothing.

LIVING is not just visually stunning but a thoroughly touching film which derived more than a few sensible chuckles out of me. The ridiculousness of the significance characters put on Williams’ new hat being both funny but also a sad indication of just how rigid his life is.

It would be hard to imagine this film with any actor other than Bill Nighy. In a role which has earned him an Oscar nomination, Nighy is charming as ever as the consummate gentleman, playing a much more frail and introverted character than I’ve ever seen him in before. 

Something I quite enjoyed is the portrayal of how Williams effects those around him. His subordinates revere him out of respect for his position much in the same way he respects his own superiors. But none of them truly know Williams on a personal level, while his encounter with a man named Sutherland (Tom Burke), and his crash lesson in life backfire spectacularly.

The rifts which Williams has developed are explored as well. His relationship with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter in law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) being especially heartbreaking. All three have a lot to talk about, however even living under the same roof they just can’t bring themselves to open up to each other.

Extremely interesting and effective also is LIVING’s unconventional non-linear narrative turn. While I found the film amusing, I’ll admit I was caught off guard by this. During the entire final act, I even found myself fighting back tears. Not all out of despair though, as the story is extremely life affirming.

LIVING has big shoes to fill due to its Kurosawa origins but Hermanus and his crew are up to the task. With a bitter-sweet screenplay by Ishiguro and an incredible lead performance by Nighy, LIVING a fantastic film in its own right. A hope-filled tale of how it’s never too late to find meaning and happiness in the world around us.

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