The first time Bill Nighy opens his mouth in Living, one can immediately tell from his slightly raspy, deliberately affectless voice that his character is hiding some unspeakable inner pain. It’s the kind of subtle yet detailed acting that could only come from a great performer. Nighy’s turn in Oliver Hermanus’s film is even more remarkable considering how different his character, the nondescript British bureaucrat Williams, is from most of the others he’s played on screen. Known mostly for portraying eccentric, mischievous, quick-witted men, here he inhabits a totally recessive, inward, stoic individual with equally startling ease.
Nighy’s performance is enough to elevate this less-than-inspired remake of Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru. Both British and Japanese cultures are known for a certain reservedness in manner, so the idea of transposing Kurosawa’s film from post-World War II Japan to post-World War II Britain does have a logic to it. And in practice, there’s some unexpected ethnographic interest to this take on the story written by the Nobel Prize-winning Ishiguro Kazuo. Kurosawa’s movie characters tended to be more emotionally demonstrative than those in the films of, say, Ozu Yasujirô and Naruse Mikio, so seeing the very stiff-upper-lipped characters in Living react to Williams’s to-them-oddball behavior does give this new version a measure of freshness.
If only the filmmakers had gone the extra mile to reimagine Kurosawa’s original story (itself inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich). But the plot of Living is basically the same as that of Ikiru. Like the old man at the center of Kurosawa’s 1952 classic, Williams has spent most of his life working the same soul-killing civil service job until he gets a terminal cancer diagnosis that forces him into a twilight reevaluation of his life. The actions he takes in the wake of that death sentence are the same as well: a drunken night out on the town with a random local named Sutherland (Tom Burke) and a rather creepy fixation on younger female former Public Works employee named Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), before a final flash of inspiration to use sheer bull-headed persistence to cut through the U.K. government’s bureaucratic red tape to get a park built in a poorly developed part of town.
Perhaps the most significant addition that Ishiguro has made is the creation of a newly hired Public Works employee, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), to serve as something of an audience surrogate, thereby dispensing with Kurosawa’s omniscient narrator. Otherwise, beyond a number of culturally specific tweaks, Ishiguro has mostly remained faithful to Kurosawa’s original narrative, right down to its mid-film gambit of having Williams die way before the end and making the rest of the film a reflection on his final days from his colleagues.
To some degree, this faithfulness is rather disappointing, giving Living the feel of a film afraid to fully step out of its predecessor’s giant shadow. That sense is only sharpened by Hermanus’s decision to shoot the film in the same 1.33:1 aspect ratio, however beautifully cinematographer Jamie Ramsay frames people and objects within that boxy frame. (At least Hermanus’s film is in color, with Ramsay finding much expressive variety within a palette of muted, earthy tones.)
Living may best suited for those who haven’t seen Ikiru, who can approach it without the distraction of identifying the one-to-one comparisons. The benefit of Ishiguro’s fidelity to Kurosawa’s original story is that its profoundly existential themes still come through, namely its larger concern with how a person defines their life and makes meaning out of it. And Nighy’s performance takes the material the rest of the way. He may be less overtly stylized than Shimura Takashi was as Watanabe Kanji, but his restraint not only fits the understated tenor of Living, but makes Williams’s plight and eventual redemption all the more affecting for its subtlety.