2022, PG-13, 102 min. Directed by Oliver Hermanus. Starring Bill Nighy, Alex Sharp, Aimee Lou Wood, Barney Fishwick, Patsy Ferran, Tom Burke.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 27, 2023

In the phenomenon of convergent evolution, life-forms in different, unconnected environments grow to become near-identical because they face near-identical evolutionary challenges. So it is that there was an undeniable kinship between the British postwar office worker and the Japanese postwar salaryman: both defined by a restrictive suit and tie, in a culture that proscribed emotional outbursts in favor of just pushing on. It's this similarity that forms the bridge for British novelist and scriptwriter Kazuo Ishiguro to adapt Akira Kurosawa's 1952 drama, Ikiru (itself based on Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich), as Living. The author of the books behind Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro arguably may be the most profound chronicler of the inherent British fear of the dread specter of impropriety, and the curse of being thought of as making a fuss.

There are many films about being caught in the labyrinth of bureaucracy, but fewer about what it is to be the architect – or at least a knowledgeable bricklayer in its construction. That's been the fate of Mr. Williams, a paper pusher in post-World War II London's council offices whose job involves keeping close track of making sure nothing gets done. His repetitive, faded life is derailed by a terminal diagnosis, although even his doctor won't give it a name (no point of making a fuss over what is already a nasty business), and so Williams attempts to grab at life while he still can – even if he lacks any of the skills to do so. His dance of admiration with his more vivacious young colleague Miss Harris (Wood, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain); his restrained and tense relationship with his quietly loved milksop son, Michael (Fishwick), and frustrated daughter-in-law, Fiona (Ferran); and most especially his understated mentorship of Wakeling (Sharp, filled with yearning), the new chap in the office in whom he may see a whisper of his own lost potential, something to be reignited in the rapidly setting sun of his life.

Yet that diagnosis is a ticking clock to change his life. It doesn't seem long, but it's something, as dissolute theatrical type Sutherland (The Souvenir's Burke in excellent, empathetic form) tells Williams as he sets out a suitably subdued lost weekend. Sutherland is analogous to the novelist played by Yūnosuke Itō in Ikiru, an indicator of how Williams finds it easier to seek sympathy from strangers than from those close to him. If anything, Sutherland is even more caring – in his own way – and there is a softness to Ishiguro’s version of the story, a warmth that counteracts the edge of cruelty that sometimes cuts through Kurosawa’s version. Most especially, Michael and Fiona are less avaricious than their counterparts, and this is connected to Ishiguro’s other great change. There is so much less dialogue, and it’s not just for brevity’s sake (although Living runs 40 minutes shorter than Ikiru). It’s about communication, a core theme that only becomes stronger in Ishiguro’s version.

While though the influence of 19th-century Russian literature has always been evident and admitted in Ishiguro's work, Living is even further removed from the The Death of Ivan Ilyich than Kurosawa's film. It is even smaller and more intimate, and much of its suppressed wonder comes from a career-best performance from Nighy. He walks through a London of shadowy blacks captured exquisitely by cinematographer Jamie Ramsay, ebony voids that almost engulf the divinely period-accurate costumes designed by Sandy Powell: Yet he himself is a gray rainbow, and expecting some wild acts of rebellion would be to miss the point entirely. Nighy, Ishiguro, and director Hermanus (Moffie) take Williams to a place of unexpected redemption, courtesy of a dirty old backstreet, with a vital moral: To live is to live as oneself.

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More Oliver Hermanus Films
Brutality and sexual awakening in Apartheid-era South Africa

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Living, Oliver Hermanus, Bill Nighy, Alex Sharp, Aimee Lou Wood, Barney Fishwick, Patsy Ferran, Tom Burke

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