Living (LFF Review) – Nighy Brings Class To A Kurosawa Remake

DIRECTOR: Oliver Hermanus

CAST: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke, Zoe Boyle, Lia Williams, Adrian Rawlins, Oliver Chris, Barney Fishwick, Patsy Ferran, Michael Cochrane, Jamie Wilkes, Rosie Sansom, Hubert Burton, Anant Varman

RUNNING TIME: 102 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: In 1950s London, a civil servant (Nighy) sets out to leave a legacy after receiving a fateful diagnosis…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of Living was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

Akira Kurosawa’s films have been remade plenty of times – most famously, his 1954 feature Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven (twice, in fact), and his 1961 film Yojimbo formed the basis for the classic Clint Eastwood western A Fistful of Dollars – but one of the more unlikely English-speaking transformations revolves around his less-known 1952 outing Ikiru. The story itself is universal enough, but it is what director Oliver Hermanus (previously of South African drama Moffie) and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro add to its poignancy that gives their remake, titled Living, the strength to stand apart from Kurosawa’s original.

The film is set in early 1950s London, a time of mild-mannered austerity and bureaucracy, where smartly-dressed gentlemen in their suits and bowler hats routinely catch the train to London and sit in their stuffy, humourless offices doing work all day. One such civil servant is Mr. Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy), whose entire life has been spent being a mere cog in the machine, so much so that he appears to have little to no trace of his own personality left – even the mere act of leaving early to attend a doctor’s appointment takes his co-workers by surprise. Unfortunately, it is at this appointment where Williams receives some devastating news: his cancer, a secret from everyone in his life, including his own adult son (Barney Fishwick), has given him less than a year left to live. Having felt as though his life has been wasted, Williams promptly sets out to experience some of the simpler pleasures in life, from indulging in hedonism with a stranger (Tom Burke) in a seaside town, to engaging in friendly converse with former secretary Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), to eventually doing something that will leave a lasting legacy long after he is finally gone.

Much like Mr. Williams himself, Living is quiet, understated, old-fashioned, and at first a little stoic, but underneath is a gentle cavalcade of emotion that really knows how to bring you to the edge without sacrificing its mannered approach. Ishiguro’s script has a calm notion about it, never feeling too showy or long-winded, and letting the drama unfold organically until it reveals multiple hidden layers that you didn’t quite pick up on earlier. As with Moffie, director Hermanus makes some bold and invigorating filmmaking choices, which includes showing it through a boxed-in aspect ratio as Jamie Ramsay’s crystal-clear cinematography shines in every frame, which itself invokes a retrospective style that does make it look like a film made in the 1950s (the opening credits sequence, set to archive footage of 50s London as a classical score plays on the soundtrack, serves to prepare viewers for this approach). Not all of the storytelling tools immediately work, such as one sudden time-jump later on in the movie that admittedly does blind-side you at first, but most of them work well enough to establish the world, its inhabitants, and the soulful heart laying beneath them all.

Nighy is a crucial element for the emotion working as well as it does, and he delivers a truly triumphant lead turn that might well rank among his best. He plays a character who you first meet as just one of many stiff upper-lipped gentlemen without much humanity left in them, having had it all sucked away by the monotonous nature of government bureaucracy, but even before he receive his fatal diagnosis you still get the sense of extra dimensions just waiting to burst from the seams, and the actor does well to invigorate real power and authority without once ever raising his voice. There are plenty of sweet scenes between him and Aimee Lou Wood, including a late monologue where you really do feel his regret and sorrow for not having lived the way that most people probably should at least once in their lives, which Night delivers in such a way where you’re almost left weeping in the aisles. As the film goes on, his newfound zest for life becomes infectious to a point where it even begins affecting some of his co-workers, which in itself leads to some interesting, but depressingly realistic, outcomes that few people such as Williams could envision for others, let alone themselves.

It is a gorgeously made, tremendously acted, and especially emotional British drama that, much like the Kurosawa film that inspired it, has the potential to reach as many people as it can with universal themes of embracing life and its many quirks, all while respecting the properness from which the main character seeks to break through once and for all.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Living is an emotional British drama that succeeds in standing apart from its primary source material, that of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, with its gentle writing, bold filmmaking and storytelling choices, and a tremendous lead turn from Bill Nighy that will have you both weeping and overwhelmed with joy within moments of each other.

Living will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 4th November 2022.

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