There comes a time in every person’s life when they wonder what sort of legacy they’ll leave behind when they die. This conundrum is the foundation for many an existential crisis, as we all take stock of ourselves and contemplate if we’ve done enough in this world to be remembered, hopefully with fondness. The world will of course go on without us, a concept with which loads of people (myself included at times) have trouble coming to terms. But it all comes back to the basic idea of regret, and whether we can go through our relatively brief time on Earth without it.
That universal concern lies at the heart of Living, a British remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic, Ikiru, directed by Oliver Hermanus and written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the novelist behind The Remains of the Day. Starring the ever-reliable Bill Nighy as a London bureaucrat staring down the end of his days, the film pretty much follows its predecessor beat for beat, but still manages to strike a good chord due to the production elements and the lead performances.
Set in 1953 (a year after Ikiru debuted in Japan), the film begins on the first day of work for Mr. Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), who has just been hired by the Department of Public Works. Eager to start, he learns quickly from his colleagues that enthusiasm is very much NOT a part of the job. He’s told to treat the morning train commute as something akin to church, where conversations are muted, and they do not fraternize with their supervisor, Mr. Williams (Nighy), who takes the same train but doesn’t share the same compartment. Trudging up several flights of stairs, the office is essentially six seats around a single desk, flanked by stacks of “In” and “Out” paperwork that gets shuffled around their stations and/or to various other departments that want to pass the buck on any actual civic projects. It’s like something out of a Russian tragedy, which sort of makes sense, as even the original film was based in part on Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Still, Wakeling is a touch disillusioned by the mobius strip of red tape, feeling an urge to make a statement when a petition from “The Ladies” (Zoe Boyle, Lia Williams, and Jessica Flood) is brought to their office yet again. The trio of mothers wishes to have a bombed out alcove on their street cleaned up and converted into a playground, but despite several trips to the council building, they’ve gotten nowhere. Wakeling is assigned to accompany them to the proper department, and he’s hopeful that his presence will at least land them in the right spot, if not expedite their proposal. Instead it becomes a firsthand lesson in do-nothing bureaucracy, as the group is once more pawned off on every department until they’re back in Public Works, and Mr. Williams relegates their petition to a forgotten pile, each office insisting that the women’s request is not within their jurisdiction.
This is the routine that Wakeling now joins, and the only bright spot is his lone female coworker, Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), a somewhat coquettish ray of sunshine who will soon be leaving for a managerial position at a restaurant. Being the only one willing to be something besides the stuffiest of stuffed shirts, Wakeling is instantly attracted.
The one break in the humdrum comes from the fact that Mr. Williams must clock out early, leaving Mr. Middleton (Adrian Rawlins) in charge for the afternoon. As it turns out, this becomes an early audition to take over the department, as Williams goes to the doctor and learns that he has terminal cancer. Suddenly confronted with his mortality, he decides not to return to work the next day, instead traveling to the coast and meeting the Ernest Hemingway-like bon vivant author, Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke). Now that he’s dying, Williams realizes that he’s never really lived a day in his life. He’s always had a rote existence, and even happy moments like his marriage and his son (Barney Fishwick) were all just part of the order of things.
A night of heavy drinking and gallivanting with Sutherland doesn’t particularly scratch the itch, so he returns to London, where he runs into Harris in the street. Promising to write her a glowing recommendation for her new job, he invites her to lunch and becomes attached to her zest for life. Fearing the appearance of impropriety, Harris tries to establish some distance while still helping him out. Meanwhile, Williams is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to tell his son Michael about his condition, aware as he is that Michael and his wife Fiona (Patsy Ferran) are more concerned with inheritance than his well-being.
As I said, if you’ve seen Ikiru, none of this is new. And quite frankly, there have been a fair few films that have come out even this year that tread similar ground. Still, that in itself doesn’t make this a bad movie. Both Nighy and Wood give tremendous performances, with the former fully embodying the melancholy that can accompany the autumn years (hearing him mournfully sing the Scottish folk song, “The Rowan Tree” is among the best scenes of the year), and the latter asserting her agency and looking at the world with eyes wide open. She’s not overly hopeful or naïve, but she embraces the world as it is, and is keen to claim her fair share of it. The pair of them have undeniable chemistry, arguably more so than Wood does with Sharp as a love interest, and there’s an unspoken understanding that the two develop that is nonetheless palpable to the viewer. On that front alone you can forgive and even endorse this remake.
Further, the production never once phones it in. The 4:3 cinematography effectively creates a tight visual box to represent the metaphorical one in which Williams has spent his entire life. The constant drudgery of his workplace serves as effective satire of bureaucracy as well as a pitch perfect depiction of his ennui. Hell, if you’re going to redo Ikiru, there are few settings better suited than the buttoned-up atmosphere of post-war London, with its quiet dignity and almost civic pride in the mere act of “carrying on” rather than living to the fullest.
Ultimately, this film is inessential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. Amazingly, Bill Nighy has never received an Oscar nomination, and there’s a heavy push for him to get one for this. If he does, you owe it to yourself to see why. I’m not sure I’d necessarily vote for him, as I’m wary of any performance showcase awards bait, but I won’t be offended if he gets a nod, or even a win in what’s shaping up to be a relatively weak Best Actor field. When it’s all said and done, Living may end up as a footnote of 2022 cinema, but given the stalwart career of Nighy to date, if he gets some overdue recognition, the thematic purpose of the story will have been oddly yet appropriately served.
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