“Living” is a respectable British remake of one of my favorite Akira Kurosawa films. While mostly faithful to the original version in terms of story and characters, the movie succeeds in generating some genuine poignancy just like the original version thanks to not only its thoughtful storytelling but also its haunting lead performance, which is incidentally one of the best works in the lead actor’s long and illustrious career.
Bill Nighy, a wonderful actor who has seldom bored us during last two decades since his hilarious supporting turn in “Love Actually” (2003), plays Mr. Rodney Williams, an old widower who is a senior London County Council bureaucrat in London, 1953. During the opening part of the film, he is introduced via the viewpoints of several other bureaucrats working under him as they begin another unremarkable day at the London County Council, and the movie gradually immerses us into their dry and joyless working environment as they handle one paper after another without much attention.
Although he has steadily and mindlessly worked without any interruption for many years, Williams makes an exception on one day to the surprise of everyone working around him. He leaves the office a bit earlier than usual, and then he visits a doctor for the diagnosis on his current medical condition, but the doctor hesitates a bit for a good reason. Unfortunately, it turns out that he has a terminal cancer, and he is quite devastated to learn that he has only a few months to live before his eventual death.
Naturally, Williams comes to look back at his whole life, and the screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel-winning novelist who has been known for several acclaimed novels including “The Remains of the Day”, takes a more restrained approach compared to Kurosawa’s film. Besides succinctly conveying to us its hero’s whole life via a series of very brief flashback shots, it also quickly establishes the considerable estrangement between him and his married adult son, and that further emphasizes how barren his life has been for many years. Williams surely cares about his son, but his son is mostly occupied with his own life matters, and that makes Williams all the more reluctant to tell his son about his terminal illness.
At least, there later come two different consolations for Williams. Shortly after coming to a seaside town for his last vacation, Williams encounters a young novelist willing to help him have some joy of life before his death, and the mood becomes a bit more spirited as they drop by one place after another during the following evening. Williams surely appreciates the kindness of his unexpected young friend, but that still does not make his melancholic emptiness go away at all. At one point, he sincerely sings an old Scottish song in front of his new friend and others in one bar, and the young novelist comes to sense more of how sad and desperate Williams really is.
When he subsequently returns to London, Williams remains confused and desperate as before, and that is when he comes across a young female employee who has worked under him for some time but recently decides to quit the job just because she does not like it much. As a dying man, Williams cannot help but drawn to her youthful spirit, and she brings some comfort via merely being with him, though she is not particularly willing to get a lot closer to him despite her affection toward him.
If you have already watched the original version, “Ikiru” (1952), you will not be that surprised much by what follows next. After doing some quiet emotional struggles, Williams suddenly comes upon a little idea on what he should do with his last few months to live, and the last act, which begins right after an unexpected narrative shift, focuses on how much he dedicates himself to his small passion project during next several months. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that 1) our hero becomes much alive than before to our ironic amusement and 2) his eventual achievement and the following moment of happiness and satisfaction really earn tears from us.
Everything in the film depends a lot on Nighy’s subtly modulated performance, which certainly deserves to be compared with Takashi Shimura’s different but equally powerful acting in the original version. After effortlessly establishing his character’s dryly unflappable bureaucratic appearance, he slowly reveals his character’s quiet desperation and pathos along the story, and he is simply superlative as his weary face comes to show much more life later in the story. Reflecting more on how Nighy deftly handles one particular key scene around the end of the film which ingrained Shimura forever in the movie history, I am reminded now that great actors do not follow rules but illustrate them instead, and Nighy, who deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his work here in this film (The movie is also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, by the way), certainly exemplifies that.
In conclusion, “Living” succeeds as much as intended while respectfully standing right below the original version, and director Oliver Hermanus, a South African filmmaker who previously drew my interest for his previous film “Moffie” (2019), did a commendable job of handling the story and characters with enough care and sensitivity. I still recommend “Ikiru” first, but “Living” is still a well-made remake to admire for many good things including Nighy’s excellent acting, and I think you will appreciate it more after watching “Ikiru”.
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