Bill Nighy has been in so many frivolous films I had begun to think of him as a lightweight, mannered actor, forever striking poses and talking in a languid drawl. Maybe we got off on the wrong foot with Love, Actually (2003), a movie I loathed at first sight. Whatever the reason, Living has forced me into a 180-degree turnaround. If Nighy had taken out the Oscar for Best Actor this year, it would have been just reward for his performance in this film. The eventual winner, Brendan Fraser, was his only serious competition.
I mustn’t get started on the Academy Awards, because it was an even bigger debacle than anticipated. To give all the major prizes to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once felt like a terrible admission that even the members of the Academy no longer have any feeling for the cinema. Perhaps the most ridiculous award was for an Original Screenplay. Compared to the other four nominees, the Daniels’ script was a complete garble.
In a world that wasn’t so infatuated with novelty and excess, a film such as Living would have been a contender for Best Picture. It’s only about a hundred times better than Everything, Everywhere ’, with a script by Nobel Prize winner, Kazuo ishiguro, that uses the most economical means to convey tremendous emotional weight. Maybe it requires a Japanese writer who has spent most of his life in Great Britain, but I can think of no other living author with such a gift for meaningful understatement.
The film itself is a typically Japanese story that has been transposed to 1950s England, and now seems even more typically English. We feel it from the first shots of Picadilly Circus and Regent Street, with those red double-decker buses and the office workers in their suits and bowler hats, all circulating to the cheerful strains of Dvorak. It’s a time capsule of another age when conformity of dress and manner was the rule.
Nighy’s Mr. Williams is the archetypal civil servant. He heads the Department of Public works in the London County Hall, commuting by train from the suburbs every morning, wearing his bowler hat, carrying his briefcase and brolly. His subordinates travel on the same train and wear the same unofficial uniform. They address each other with studied politeness, never on first name terms.
This day, however, is slightly different. It’s the day Mr. Williams has an appointment with his doctor, where he will learn he has inoperable cancer, and only months to live. It hits him like a thunderbolt, although characteristically, he keeps a stoic demeanour. Gradually he realises his entire life has been one long, boring charade. He has played the role of a “gentleman”, but only succeeded in being a dull, grey cypher. When his wife died he never felt inclined to marry again. He shares his house with his son and daughter-in-law, but knows they are mostly concerned with what he might leave them. He never tells them, or the people in his office, about his illness. Instead, he simply stops going to work, and takes a train to a seaside resort where he falls in with a local bohemian and makes a gallant, awkward attempt to “live” a little.
Back in London Mr. Williams runs into Miss Harris from the office (Aimee Lou Wood) and invites her for lunch at Fortnum and Mason’s. At long last, he begins to unwind, although he knows it’s foolish for a man of his vintage to be keeping company with such a young woman. Little by little he comes up with a plan to make his last days count.
There’s a lot to this story that I won’t reveal, as its great pleasure lies in watching Mr. Williams’s metamorphosis from a hollow man into a man of feeling and action, and the impact this has on those who thought they knew him.Director, Oliver Hermanus has borrowed this story wholesale, from Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) of 1952, Often proclaimed as Kurosawa’s masterpiece the movie is a certified classic. But having watched it again recently, I was struck by the degree to which the remake improves on the original. For starters, Ikiru is forty minutes longer than Living, and most of that time is spent spelling out things that require no elaboration. Ishiguro has trimmed the fat and allowed for a more intimate encounter with the characters.
It’s also fascinating to compare Nighy’s performance with that of Takashi Shimura, the great Japanese actor who plays Kurosawa’s hero, Mr. Watanabe. Shimura conceives Watanabe as a frightened rabbit, timid and obsequious, then strangely sleazy. Nighy plays Mr. Williams as a more consistent character whose lifelong practice of showing no emotion, is tested but not broken by thoughts of death and the futiity of his existence. Mr. Watanabe sweats on his cancer diagnosis, with bulging eyes and nervous ticks. When Mr. Williams is given the bad news, he says: “Quite”.
The song Mr. Watanabe sings is successfully replaced by Mr. Williams’s rendition of a melancholy Scottish ballad. Hermanus’s discreet homage to Kurosawa comes in the form of a toy rabbit.
Aimee Lou Wood’s cheeky, big-hearted cockney, Miss Harris, is also an advance on her Japanese counterpart, played by Miki Odagiri. Wood brings far more light-and-shade to the role.
Even when drunk, Mr. Williams is more respectable than Mr. Watanabe, which is quite an achievement, given the notorious formality of Japanese society. And yet, we know Mr. Williams and Living would not exist had Kurosawa never given us this tale of a man who only begins to live when confronted with his own death. Then again, neither would Kurosawa’s story exist if he hadn’t read Tolstoy’s novella, of 1886, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Not only does Mr. Williams find a way of investing his last days with a purpose, he leaves his workmates and family in a state of bemusement, searching their own consciences, wondering if they would display the same moral courage. What’s the point of life anyway? It’s Mr. Williams’s sovereign achievement that he manages one good deed, and turns his fellow bureaucrats, temporarily, into philosophers. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself similarly affected.
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, after a script by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto
Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Adrian Rawlings, Hubert Burton, Oliver Chris, Jamie Wilkes, Patsy Ferran, Barney Fishwick, Tom Burke, Thomas Coombes
UK/Japan/Sweden, PG, 102 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 March, 2023