In a heartbreaking remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Bill Nighy gives a performance of his career-best.
Few performers have the ability to engage an audience the way Bill Nighy does. With his droll charm and a conspiratorial twinkle that seems to say: “Nonsense, isn’t it? but also rather enjoyable, don’t you think? Who else could capture the audience’s attention as a flappy-faced computer-generated squid guy, ala Pirates of the Caribbean, or add a dash of arch devilry to Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’ dumpster fire? But he can really soar when the subject matter is deserving, as it is in this exquisite adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru.
In this richly gratifying drama from the 1950s about a repressed, terminally ill man who discovers life as it is ending, Nighy is at his best. Every softly uttered aside he makes has its freight of hope and sorrow; every minute facial twitch reveals profoundly hidden feelings, like fault lines pointing to a massive underground earthquake. His performance is understated, occasionally extremely good, and can leave you in a pile of tears.
His lugubrious civil worker, Mr. Williams, lacks the infamous Nighy eyebrow raise. He is the type of man The Kinks might have written a song about. He is a creature of routine who takes the same train every morning to the same desk inside a confusing London municipal building. There, he bows his head and shuffles applications for various projects, such as a new playground for children that is being pursued tenaciously by three frustrated women, filing them away in a dusty in-tray with the soothing “there, it can do no harm” as if he
That is, of course, exactly what he is doing, along with himself.
If you’ve watched Ikiru, the Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s adaptation of the novel, you’ll know that Mr. Williams’s fate involves both a cancer diagnosis and that playground – and one swing, in particular. This is an unique screenplay attempt. If you haven’t already, picture him as a pin-striped, bureaucratic Ebenezer Scrooge who is more restrained and less furious in his rejection of joy.
“Bill Nighy’s performance may well leave you a sobbing mess”
The interiors of Living are overwhelmingly depicted in the movie—stuffy offices, seashore cafés, and bawdy pubs—but South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus jazzes them up with the same visual creativity that he used in his excellent LGBT bootcamp drama Moffie. Living, like Kurosawa, proudly displays the post-World War II British influence, even down to the newsreel footage in its introduction and the dramatic swells of Dvoák and Vaughn Williams.
Hermanus also uses his outsider perspective to expose British reserve for what it is: a quick track to a life that is incredibly unfulfilling. He and Ishiguro, who, of course, wrote the quintessential critique of English repression in his book “The Remains of the Day,” are both aware that Britons are not particularly forthcoming; in Living’s prim and proper society, individuals don’t even reveal their first names, much less their emotions. Because both countries place a premium on solitude and employ decorum as a cloak, the cultural exchange between Japan and England in this rewriting is extremely successful.
An undersized but expertly chosen ensemble surrounds Nighy. Tom Burke is his charming self as always, a generally well-intentioned hedonist who shows the dying man the incorrect path by leading him on a carouse through the trash-loving pleasures of the English seashore. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time TONY winner Alex Sharp, who plays the young civil servant who may have started down the same path as his boss, exudes warmth in the role.
Best of all is Aimee Lou Wood from Sex Education as the bubbly underling who uses personality force and that exceedingly rare quality of openness to elicit Mr. Williams’s darkest concerns. She leads these dried-out old husks toward a better life, like an effervescent tablet thrown into a jar of brackish water. The same is true of this moving movie, which issues a call to action to make the most of every moment you have.