Living (2022)

Bill Nighy breathes life into ‘Living’

Living and dying. The diametric terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, they walk hand-in-hand for some as they navigate life, futilely attempting to make sense of their existence. Should our ideal objective during our short stay on Earth be a greater reward in the afterlife? Or, is it best to operate in the here and now, contributing whatever we can, however meager, to benefit the greater good of our community, if not the world? Those are the questions profoundly woven into the aptly titled, “Living,” director Oliver Hermanus’ meditation on how too often we allow the tedium of the day-to-day to overwhelm our weary souls.

He could not have found a better example than Rodney Williams, a humorless, lifelong civil servant who has become so dead to the world that he’s well-earned the pejorative nickname of “Zombie.” It’s a role stone-faced Bill Nighy was born to play, and he masterfully acts the heck out of it without once altering his perpetually glum exterior. Lanky, pallid and sporting a proper bowler (it’s set in the 1950s), Nighy’s Mr. Williams is the very definition of dead man walking. And this is before his physician informs him that he has just six months to live. Or, should I say survive?

It’s clear from the outset that Mr. Williams ceased living many, many years ago, succumbing to the robotic function of a chief paper-pusher for the bureaucratic London County Council. Even now, sentenced to death, he has no concept of how to seek any sort of fulfillment before checking out of a life unlived. But that doesn’t mean he’s averse to trying. And an assist from a middling playwright and a young, exuberant former coworker might actually help him find what he didn’t know he was looking for.

What’s remarkable about Kazuo Ishiguru’s nearly flawless script is that it seldom dips its toe into sentimental waters. It’s straightforward and unadorned, just like its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, “Ikiru.” Normally, I’d scream “sacrilege,” at the idea that anyone would attempt to remake a classic as finely crafted as “Ikiru.” But Ishiguru, who previously penned the equally buttoned-up “The Remains of the Day” for Anthony Hopkins, modifies the material just enough to make it stand on its own.

For the most part, Ishiguru retains the basic structure of the original story, beginning with illustrating the pass-the-buck nature of bureaucracy, issuing the devastating diagnosis and presenting a pivotal night on the town under the tutelage of a slightly debauched stranger (Tom Burke) more than eager to instruct his new pal in the immense pleasures of wine, women and song (Just wait until you hear Nighy croon the lovely “Oh Rowan Tree”). But like “Ikiru,” the film’s heart resides within a chance encounter between the doomed man and a vivacious young woman whose exuberance for life affords him inspiration.

In this instance, the lady is Williams’ ex-coworker, Margaret Harris, winningly portrayed by Aimee Lou Wood, who is every bit the measure of Nighy in fleshing out what might have been in lesser hands a 1950s’ equivalent of a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”

Wood proves a real find, as Miss Harris discovers a suitable father figure willing to encourage her openness and candor, right down to copping to hanging the “Zombie” moniker on her former boss. The handful of scenes the two share is the movie’s lifeblood. But Nighy is its reason for existing, digging deep to affectingly reveal how Miss Harris awakens not just Mr. Williams’ will to live, but also his need to leave his mark on a world he’s too long ignored.

His redemption, so to speak, is to grant the wish of three determined young mothers who’ve long been lobbying to convert a bombed-out, rodent-infested courtyard into a proper park for local kids. Can Mr. Williams possibly slice through miles of red tape and a thick maze of bureaucracy to make it happen? I won’t say. But whether the park materializes or not is hardly the point. Rather, the aim is to communicate that thinking beyond oneself is the best means to realizing your own humanity.

Some people, like Mr. Williams’ stodgy son (the apple doesn’t fall far) and prudish daughter-in-law (Barney Fishwick and Patsy Ferran) may never discover this. While others, such as Alex Sharp’s highly personable Peter Wakeling already know it. Yet, I question why Mr. Wakeling is even a part of all this, beyond serving as Mr. Williams’ newest coworker. There was no such character in “Ikiru,” nor was one necessary. But here he is, no doubt inserted as a conduit into a story that needs no such device. Worse, a late montage of Miss Harris and him bonding romantically feels further out of place.

Still, it’s the only misstep in an otherwise sweet, quiet (perhaps, at times, too quiet) tale of how it’s never too late to start to live, even when the reaper is rapping at your door. More than that, “Living” deftly challenges us to ask ourselves how dead we may be inside. And more importantly, what we plan to do about it.

Movie review


Rating: PG-13 for language and some suggestive material

Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp and Tom Burke.

Director: Oliver Hermanus

Writer: Kazuo Ishiguru

Runtime: 102 minutes

Grade: B+

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