Released 2022. Director: Oliver Hermanus
SIX MONTHS AND HE'LL BE DEAD. THAT'S WHAT THE DOCTOR tells Mr Williams. The news rattles the naturally calm and unperturbed man to his core, though you wouldn’t know it from his serene demeanour. In the shadow of a terminal illness, Mr Williams begins to take stock of his time left.
Life is finite and could end at any moment. We all know that. There’s nothing quite like being given a short notice to kick someone into action and evaluate priorities. It’s a cliché though in this case, Living is a soulful, clear-eyed and even moving look at a man’s attempt to get up, get out and get something done while he still can.
A remake of Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952, Living has been adapted by Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. The central character, Mr Williams, is a dour, unsmiling civil servant in the public works department. He is surrounded by a team of younger bureaucrats in a small office where their desks are cluttered with folders and paperwork stacked high as a sign of pride.
A sequence that echoes the absurdist satire in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil features a group of women submitting an application for the building of a children’s playground being shuffled around the building from department to department only to have their paperwork shoved onto a pile, and no doubt, oblivion, illustrating the reality of the ineffectual bureaucracy and the daily drudgery of the work performed by Mr Williams and his colleagues. Responsibilities are passed around and papers pushed aside, job done.
At work, Mr Williams is treated with respect for his seniority. A man who has dedicated his life to his career is a paragon to be emulated, as upheld by prevailing ethos. The diagnosis of a terminal illness gives Mr Williams pause to consider what he’s missed out on and what he might want to leave behind.
The staid bureaucracy of the times is reflected in 1950s London. Each morning, men in dark suits and hats stream out of trains into city streets, indistinguishable from each other, a mob of grey and black marching to a daily monotonous rhythm, unchanging until they retire, or die.
The character of Mr Williams also recalls the butler played by Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day from one of Ishiguro’s acclaimed novels, which also addresses the repressed sensibility and unquestioning loyalty to one’s post to the exclusion of everything else in life.
Few would argue this isn’t among the finest hours for 73-year-old actor Bill Nighy, whose nuanced portrayal of a joyless Englishman masterfully sidesteps any tragic pratfalls. Mr Williams’ gaze barely conceals his frostiness, until it gradually reflects a searching, yearning desire for genuine feelings. His thin, whispery voice sounds like a struggle to express his real emotions, as he grapples with reaching out.
Living is not only about the one person whose time is running out, but also people who give their time, and perhaps being unaware that their momentary companionship enriches someone’s life tremendously. Mr Williams’ platonic friendship with a much younger Miss Harris, who’s just resigned from his department, is the stuff that fuels gossip but their connection is borne of trust and solace. A chance encounter with a Mr Sutherland leads Mr Williams to spend a day in uncharacteristic spontaneity, which culminates in a nostalgic, deeply expressive reverie of the old man singing The Rowan Tree, a song he remembers from his childhood.
This is a reflective story of an ordinary man, a creature of habit and routine who takes a chance to experience the pleasure of a simple friendship, to help some housewives with a playground, to create something of lasting value, to live for a moment outside his closed-up existence.
This is not to say Mr Williams manages to tick every item on the list. His inability to confide and share his concerns with his son is regrettable. But such is the reality of life for some families. Living doesn’t pretend to paint a beautiful scene where everyone gets to say everything they want to say, and tie all loose ends. Because life doesn’t always work that way.
Although the premise of ‘Have you really lived? Have you made a difference?’ may appear sentimental on paper, the quality of the writing and acting here completely circumvents the inherent melodramatic elements. Living may deal with sadness but don’t be deterred by any notion of gloominess. It’s about small gestures, warmth, kindness and a rigid man allowing himself to breathe again. The delivery may be culturally specific and the message may resonate stronger with a particular age group, the idea in Living, without question, is universal, whether in Japanese or English, whether you're at the prime of your life, or approaching the exit.
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