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Review: Living

January 19, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Bill Nighy’s performance in Living, a remarkably tender remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, is a thing of quiet beauty. Nighy stars as Mr. Williams, a worker drone in 1950s London whose job as a civil servant at the public works department has consumed much of his life.

When Williams, a widower somewhat estranged from his adult son (Barney Fishwick), receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and six months to live, he decides to spend his remaining time living the life he never pursued. The film balances this perspective through the eyes of a young man, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), who has just started working in the department, and is left to interpret Williams’ changes in temperament and demeanour.

Ishiguro, who is already recognized as one of our finest novelists from The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go to his most recent book Klara and the Sun, does a beautiful job of adapting Kurosawa’s original screenplay. While this is technically a remake of Ikiru, Living is also a new interpretation of the material that makes some changes while leaving the core structure and themes intact in a way that compliments the original.

The film is directed by Oliver Hermanus, who previously made the very good South African military drama Moffie, and he has gone to great lengths to craft a film that embodies its time period, including newsreel footage of London in the 1950s to first bring us into this world. Sandy Powell’s authentic, lived in costumes showcase the business attire of the era, while Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography finds stately compositions within the boxy aspect ratio that highlight the performances. It’s all complimented by composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s lovely musical score.

What makes Living so moving to watch is the way that Nighy captures the feeling of waking up from having sleepwalked through much of your life, and trying to make the most of whatever time you have left. There is a great tenderness to his presence here, especially in scenes that he shares with Aimee Lou Wood, who gives a wonderfully sensitive performance as younger co-worker Margaret, who becomes both friend and confidante. Tom Burke, best known for The Souvenir, also impresses in his few scenes as a drunken playwright who shows Mr. Williams how to have a night on the town, a sequence that ends with a moment of remarkable pathos involving singing in a bar.

This is a story about finding meaning in the simple act of living, and there is a wonderful, elegiac quality to the entire film in its quiet but grand portrayal of a character recognizing wasted opportunity and the things that finally wake him up to it. This is a remake that works thanks to Hermanus’ artfully restrained direction and Ishiguro’s sharp, powerful writing, coupled with Nighy’s wonderful, remarkably poignant performance. The result is a really lovely and beautifully crafted old school drama that offers a profound emotional impact by the end.

Living opens in limited release on January 20th. It’s being distributed in Canada by Mongrel Media.

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