Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 42 minutes, Director – Oliver Hermanus
When told that he has only six months to live the head of a London council department (Bill Nighy) tries to make the most of his life.
There seems to be something about Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru which appears to lend itself rather nicely to the backdrop of 1950s London. Kurosawa’s film itself was released in the 50s and while very much fitting of its time and Japanese culture and stylings undoubtedly has a sense of timeless universality. It’s brought into this English language remake with ease thanks to Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay and a fine capturing of traditional repressed British emotion under the guise of the stiff-upper-lip attitude. Much of this is conveyed through the leading performance of Bill Nighy as head of London Council’s Public Works department, Mr Williams.
While Williams is certainly the central focus of Living’s midsection he plays something of a supporting role in the stages which bookend the film. It’s here that while he certainly plays a prominent role and remains a central focus we see more of how other characters view him. Those who he works with in the quiet office filled with the sound of occasional paper filing alongside his distant son (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran). The difference in the bookends is the lease of life he finds in-between as, after being given six months to live, he tries to find a way to truly live.
Initially this takes him to other people’s interpretations of living, via a boozy seaside night with Tom Burke, before eventually finding it in that which was already around him. Simple cinema trips to see Cary Grant in I Was A Male War Bride with former employee Miss Harris (a rather charming Aimee Lou Wood) who he begins to form a friendship with. While Nighy’s performance throughout remains effectively quiet and restrained there’s a clear change in his character as the film gets through its moments rather quickly. Certainly the core change in attitude of the central figure feels condensed into a number of rather quick scenes which move from one to the other with a quicker pace than some of the other strands of the film. Time is still taken, but it feels slightly pacier as you can tell the film wants to reach a key point and development that will lead to the next big stage in the narrative.
In general little has changed from the original film, yet Living manages to get away with this and still makes for engaging viewing. There may be a sense of familiarity at times, but never too much to be bored or disengaged. Leaning more into the realms of faithful remake than a shot-for-shot one. Similarly tones and feelings are captured without feeling as if you might as well be watching the original. And much of this comes from Bill Nighy’s performance and the way that the film focuses on the effect that his character has in taking control of his life. Sometimes seen from the perspective of new-to-the-office Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp), told to expect a stern, little-talking, punctual head of department before he fails to turn up multiple days in a row, after having to leave work early on the new employees first day.
As a whole there’s a calmness to the film which allows for the quietness of the emotion to come through and have more of a connecting effect. Much of why the film works is down to its subtleties and the conflicting restrained emotions of the themes and the displays of what the characters are often feeling. It has an engaging effect which manages to flow rather well, even if a bit sped up during one key part of the central Mr Williams’ course of change, and fits right in to the time period in which it is set – starting off with various 50s-style shots of central London, music and title cards to reflect a film of the period – to further reflect the tones and ideas on display throughout. All rather well captured and simply helping to create an even more thoughtful impact which perhaps remains due to the fact that never does the film go for loudness or heavy forcefulness.
The restrained tones and emotions that make the subtleties and thoughtfulness of Living as effective as they are are captured within Bill Nighy’s wonderfully restrained central performance. While some moments may feel a bit rushed through the film remains well placed within its time period, with quietness making an impact at the fore throughout.