Outstanding “Living” reminds viewers why we’re all here

Bill Nighy in "Living"

It is a daunting task to remake a classic like Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” but with his exquisite film, “Living,” opening January 13, out gay filmmaker Oliver Hermanus (“Beauty,” “Moffie”) has done a remarkable job. Moreover, working from a screenplay by famed author Kazuo Ishiguro and boasting an arguably career-best performance from Bill Nighy, Hermanus’ excellent remake contains all of the ideas and emotions of the original despite some tweaks and edits. 

“Living” opens in Britain in the 1950s with Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) starting his first day of work in the Publics Works office in City Hall. He is informed of the codes of conduct starting at the train station where he meets his colleagues, Middleton (Adrian Rawlins), Rusbridger (Hubert Burton), and Hart (Oliver Chris). They explain when to talk, and that their superior, Williams (Nighy), never travels with them. In the office, Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) tells Wakeling that the skyscraper of files on their desks must remain high, lest anyone thinks they are getting work done. (Hermanus artfully films shots through the Jenga-towers of paper, creating tension as when Wakeling dares to pull at some pages in one pile.)

The byzantine bureaucracy of the office is further seen when three ladies hope to get a playground built on an open lot. They encounter obstacle upon obstacle with the Parks and Public Works departments. (Ishiguro’s books are full of such scenes, which may be why the novelist has long been keen to remake “Ikiru.”)

Williams is a master of filing things for later. But when he leaves early one day to attend to a doctor’s appointment, he gets very grim diagnosis. Williams learns has only months to live and withholds his fate from his colleagues and family. This devastating news prompts him to take some time off work. One afternoon, he meets Sutherland (Tom Burke) whom he hopes will show him how to live; Williams claims he doesn’t know how. Their scenes together, at arcades, a bar, and even a striptease show, invigorate Williams. He even gets a symbolic new hat.

When he is in London the next afternoon, Williams reconnects with Ms. Harris, whom he takes for a light lunch at Fortnum’s, giving her a job reference that she had requested. She observes that Mr. Williams is not quite the man she assumed him to be. She had nicknamed him “Mr. Zombie,” which he appreciates, rather than feels insulted by. Ms. Harris sees him outside the office as someone much more spirited.

Bill Nighy in “Living”

This is one of the themes in “Living” and it is played out with restraint and precision. After Williams dies, the second half of the film features a “post-mortem,” where his colleague as well as Williams’ son, Michael (Barney Fishwick), reflect on his character and recount their impressions of the deceased. Ironically, they still feel at a loss to fully understand him and admire how he created his greatest achievement — something best left for viewers to discover. Williams’ legacy is at the heart of the film, and the most poignant scenes address how he spent his last months, accomplishing more than he did in all the years prior. 

However, most of the film’s drama stems from the miscommunication and misreadings of Williams’ actions. An awkward dinner scene has Fiona (Patsy Ferran) hoping that her boyfriend Michael will talk with his father about the neighborhood gossip who spied Williams lunching with Ms. Harris. Ms. Harris thinks Williams’ intentions in meeting her periodically are romantic, but he explains, in a marvelous speech, that they are not. He simply appreciates her appetite for life. This is the feeling he wants to have before he dies.

“Living” captures those feelings well through Nighy’s stunning performance. His gravely, soft-spoken voice, his rigid body language, and his gentlemanly politeness are all pitched perfectly to portray a man whose will and passion have been worn down by the bureaucratic machine, but who refuses to be pitied or die with regret. What makes Nighy’s work so extraordinary is how he can express dejection, such as when his son calls out for him to ask Williams to lock up the house. In contrast, William’s exchange with Sutherland in a café (that looks like something out of an Edward Hopper painting) is far more tender. Both men acknowledge Williams’ ideation of suicide without ever quite saying it, and Sutherland, who is incredibly empathetic, understands what this stranger needs. So too, does Ms. Harris, in another heartbreaking exchange. 

Hermanus imbues “Living” with a tremendous sensitivity, which is why it is so often moving. Williams may be a bit “frosty” but as he learns “to live” he becomes more empowered (at work) and more self-confident. Nighy makes that transformation credible, and he does it in an understated way — just watch him agree to happily wait all day for some paperwork to be processed, a passive-aggressive approach to achieving his goal. His superb performance should secure the marvelous character actor his first Oscar nomination. 

“Living” is also artful from its gorgeous cinematography by Jamie Ramsay, who provides a kind of technicolor feel that allows the natty costumes by Sandy Powell and the 1950s period flavor to pop off the screen. Even the score, by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, evokes a strong undercurrent for the subtle action. 

“Living” is an outstanding achievement that measures up to its acclaimed original.