'Living' - embracing life to its fullest

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday January 3, 2023
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Bill Nighy as Williams in 'Living'
Bill Nighy as Williams in 'Living'

Remakes of acknowledged classic films are a risky business. Remakes in English of foreign language films have been common through the decades, though in most cases they're considered inferior to the source material. Gay South African director Oliver Hermanus ("Body") and screenwriter Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro had their work cut out in their contemporary reinterpretation —not an English-language copy— of the 1952 revered Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" (Japanese for 'To Live'). Hermanus and Ishiguro have met the challenge. While their "Living" won't replace "Ikiru," it's a worthy successor with a universal uplifting message.

Relocating the original Tokyo setting to a gloomy 1953 London shattered by World War II, we're introduced to Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), staid rigid austere head of the Public Works Department populated by functionaries wearing gray pinstripe suits and bowler hats. This administration is an intransigent bureaucracy embroiled in red tape, shuffling papers and making sure a minimum amount of money is spent, including stonewalling a group of women who want to construct a small children's playground on a dilapidated Blitz bomb site.

Williams receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, to which he responds with his typical stoic subdued demeanor, "Quite," yet this death sentence compels him to take stock of his life.

A long-time widower, Williams is unable to tell his stifling son and shrew daughter-in-law his dire news, so he flees to a seaside resort where he meets a local decadent playwright (Tom Burke) who introduces him to a hedonist culture. He ultimately rejects it, though not before, in a sublime scene, he sings his mother's favorite Scottish ballad, "The Rowan Tree," at a pub.

Bill Nighy and Aimee Lou Wood in 'Living'  

Parable or satire?
Back in London, he meets his former employee Margaret (the delightful Aimee Lou Wood) who's found a new career in restaurant management. Her vitality, warmth, and humor kindles a friendship that others misinterpret as a romance. After she reveals her nickname for him as Mr. Zombie, he's inspired to return to work and —with the help of a new employee Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp)— become a force of change to establish a legacy that will outlive him and provide meaning for his final days.

On one level, "Living" is a satire on the tedium of civil service and the reserved stiff-upper-lip, cold-blooded manner of the British (similar to Kurosawa's parody of conformist Japanese culture and subversion of the status quo) coupled with a rejection of bourgeois stability. But the movie primarily becomes a parable on death affirming life, learning to appreciate the time we've been given. It's not the 'Check every box off your Bucket List' version of death, but a philosophy of making the most of every moment in the circumstances you find yourself.

This emphasis on death isn't morbid and evokes a profound depth of emotion that's missing from the recent "Spoiler Alert," about a gay dying spouse.

"Living" argues what gives life meaning is what we do for other people. The loose source material for Kurosawa's movie was Tolstoy's novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and its theme of embracing the present as a way of living life to its fullest, serves the same function for "Living." Are we satisfied with the choices we've made in life? If not, can we overcome longing and regret, seize the day, persevering to make the necessary changes and transcend the inevitable obstacles thrown our way?

Actual selves
The other more pertinent theme to queer audiences is repression, about allowing your actual self to emerge and then live it out 24/7. With Ishiguro as scriptwriter, we can't help but recall the Merchant-Ivory film of his iconic novel "Remains of the Day," with a similar circumstance of the stoic English butler (Anthony Hopkins) so devoted to his duty, he suppresses any opportunity for a personal love life.

In "Living," Williams grabs the opportunity to find himself and become the real person liberated from the dictates of work and society. It's obvious Hermanus saw the connection with queer life in not being able to express who you are and love whom you love. Quashing one's inhibitions and overthrowing social conventions, which epitomizes Williams, will resonate with LGBTQ audiences.

"Living" wouldn't be as compelling without the genius of Bill Nighy as Williams, who gives the greatest performance of an already distinguished career. Nighy hails from the-less-is-more school of acting, relying on understatement, facial expressions (especially downcast eye gazes), body language (i.e. stiff posture), and soft-spoken delivery of minimal dialogue. Every reaction, no matter how small, has great import and insight into his multi-layered dissection of this character. Silence is indeed golden here.

"Living" is a period piece, but similar to Merchant-Ivory films, its a meticulous production crew transports you back to a 1953 London as if you were personally experiencing its milieu, aided by Sandy Powell's historically accurate costumes recreating a '50s aesthetic. The film never seems remote or nostalgic and while "Ikiru," shot in black-and-white, gave it a timeless feel, "Living's" vivid color-drenched palette helps avoid any sense of melancholy and instead promotes an affirmation of life.

Finding joy and purpose in the time we've been given reverberates during this holiday season. You will be moved and awed by "Living," because it profoundly echoes what it means to be human and to face one's mortality.


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