Director Oliver Hermanus’ Living, which relocates Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru from 1950s Japan to an equally restrictive London during the same time period, is an absolute joy.
Filmed in an over-saturated and intentionally dated post-war style, it follows the fortunes of Mr. Williams, played with stoic resignation by Bill Nighy. Trapped behind his desk pushing meaningless papers around in an endless loop, he no longer values the pleasures of human interaction. Mourning the loss of his beloved wife, barely on speaking terms with his only son, and incapable of the simplest exchange, he leads an uneventful life.
Hermanus establishes early on that this framework of routine and repetition is paramount, if only to offer the audience an opportunity to connect with everything which follows. Nighy represses every instinct to express himself, trapped inside this husk of a man, as his inability to communicate is construed as indifference. Those who share his cramped and cluttered office space converse in clipped tones on inconsequential matters of local government, before returning to their reams of red tape.
Alex Sharp’s Peter Wakeling acts as the innocent newbie, thrown into a system where resolutions are never intentional, but counterproductive. Maintaining a need for bureaucracy is all-consuming within the realm of public works, where interest rarely aligns with agenda. As a snapshot of institutional thinking in governments and councils alike, Living sails intentionally close to the wind throughout. However, what throws everything into sharp relief is a harsh wake-up call for Williams, in the form of a terminal diagnosis.
Faced with this harsh reality, he reacts irrationally and disappears out of London. What follows is a travelogue of experiences, evoking the pleasures of times gone by, as Williams indulges his wilder side. For Nighy, this includes an emotive rendition of an old ballad, struck through with melancholy undertones but still indicative of a man set free. Even in a smoky tent filled to the rafters with drunken patrons, this ode to existence and lost loves alleviates his isolation for only a brief moment.
However, upon his return, it’s the connection he makes with Aime Lou Wood’s Margaret Harris that ultimately has the greatest impact. Wishing to be influenced by her youth and exuberance, their relationship takes on an endearing quality that proves to be the heart of the film. At work, Williams embarks on crusades, flies in the face of conventional thinking, and aims to make up for lost time. What makes Living so inherently heartbreaking, though, is that many of these revelations happen in flashback, discussed between colleagues after his passing.
Moments of kindness, unspoken gestures, and quiet victories hidden from view are the things that get left behind. Someone once said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, which if nothing else is what Hermnaus looks to illustrate here. Many of the most revolutionary actions are often instigated by those who seek no praise. What Nighy manages to pull off in Living is a performance of measured mediocrity, one that’s deliberately lacking in showmanship. His embodiment of the ordinary is there to illustrate a point, not garner awards or court potential adulation. If anything, it’s composer Emile Levienaise-Farrouch who should be recognized above all else.
With an extravagant score that embraces the era wholeheartedly, the composition and percussion make a rousing impression from the outset. Levienaise-Farrouch injects and reflects emotive moments with blatant crescendos, which act as a perfect counterpoint to the buttoned-down ethos on screen.
In an equally impactful masterstroke, cinematographer Jaime Ramsay elevates Living by evoking a specific time and place without ever feeling showy. Beyond the solid central performance from Nighy and some understated support elsewhere, these creative choices lend this story something unique. As a result, the story excels in celebrating the small things that are pulled into sharp focus by personal adversity.
By choosing a time of restrictive social constraints, where gender defined much more than just personal and professional roles, Living highlights the irrelevance of such labels. A lack of consequences in the face of a terminal illness forces people to reconsider their life choices, and perhaps even find them wanting. Whether this film manages to entertain, and isn’t merely written off as a lackluster navel-gazing exercise, will depend greatly on where you fall on that particular question.
Bill Nighy delivers a masterful performance in this gentle period melodrama from director Oliver Hermanus.