Bill Nighy Conveys the Urgency of 'Living' in the Moment

Directed by Oliver Hermanus

Starring Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke, Adrian Rawlins

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

BY Everett Amber EllisPublished Jan 18, 2023

Many stories have explored the tragedy of being left behind — something that becomes most vivid late in life. Many great artists have explored this theme to varying degrees: Ingmar Bergman, Theo Angelopoulos, Agnes Varda and Akira Kurosawa being particularly striking examples within cinema.

British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has approached the theme of bittersweet late-stage mortality once already, with his 1989 Nobel Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (eventually adapted into its own film by James Ivory four years later). Since its publication, Ishiguro has added screenwriting to his repertoire, penning original screenplays for directors Guy Maddin and the aforementioned Ivory.

Living is Ishiguro's third feature-length screenwriting credit, this time paired with South African director Oliver Hermanus. Unlike Ishiguro's previous screenwriting credits, Living is an adaptation of a previous work — Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru. This is not the first time the work of Kurosawa has been remade by other filmmakers, nor is it the first time that such films have done so in completely different cultural contexts. The United States saw Seven Samurai and made The Magnificent Seven; Italy saw Yojimbo and made A Fistful of Dollars. Despite Kurosawa's work being so deeply indebted to Japan's own past and present, those stories have proven to be universal in how they can be translated to fit so many other cultures and genres.

Living, like Ikiru, involves an elderly bureaucrat in a post-war society who is faced with a terminal illness. All the paperwork and formalities that once made up his life start feeling like distractions from the sort of life he tries to live following his diagnosis, with each conversation with coworkers now registering almost as if they have a hard time seeing what's truly in front of them. This approach is cynical on a macro level, speaking to the priorities of a larger society in favour of the individual. However, Living is forgiving of those who fall victim to such a social structure — just as its own protagonist had done for so many years already.

Great Britain is similar to what Japan represented in Ikiru: busy, bustling, breakneck, and a bit cruel. It's not without nuance of course, which is what makes both Ikiru and Living so painfully human. These are not worlds filled with evil men putting down a desperate and lonely man on his dying days; these are people burdened by responsibilities, distracted from what might be in front of them, living for the standards set by top-down and capital-dependent expectations. 

Mr. Williams, played spectacularly by English actor Bill Nighy, is confronted with what little time he has left, and in turn can more truthfully observe how impatiently the world around him is paced. The kindness he seeks is available to him, though often in a very temporary form; as Mr. Williams tries to live for the moment, other characters inevitably return to the vicious pace that runs their lives. The connections he hopes for and the kindness that he seeks, even with his newfound outlook on life, are still made claustrophobic by his surroundings.

In an earnest attempt to reach into the past, Living benefits from a very classical, almost silver-tinged style of cinematic imagery and blocking, as well as detailed yet subdued work in its art direction and costume design. Perhaps its taste for melodrama might have been better suited for a more quietly contemplative experience, with Nighy doing a few too many piano-backed monologues. But the contemplation and emotion in his words are always felt, in equal measures fragile and resilient. 

That said, what an optimist might call a faithful re-imagining of Kurosawa's original vision (itself partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy), a pessimist may consider it a downgrade sanding off the more specific points and edges that Ikiru made so passionately — even desperately, compared to Living's more stoic approach. Familiarity with Living's source material may certainly affect a viewer's own conclusions.

The sentiments of Living's heart-on-its-sleeve attitudes to storytelling, even if overwrought on occasion, never feel insincere about the subject and their surroundings. Nighy certainly seems to carry optimism on his back quite effortlessly, even in the face of tragedy.
(Mongrel Media)

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