Scripted by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Oliver Hermanus, Living is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s celebrated film, Ikiru – the story of a man coming to the end of his life and desperately trying to right the wrongs of his wasted opportunities. Set in the same era as the original, the story is cleverly relocated to a city hall somewhere in London, where a battalion of bowler-hatted wage slaves put reams of printed paper into order. The office is presided over by Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) a man so grievously incapable of meaningful conversation, that the office’s sole female occupant, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), has secretly dubbed him ‘Mr Zombie.’
But when his doctor informs him that, courtesy of stomach cancer, he has only a few months left to live, Williams finds he is totally incapable of talking about it to his son and daughter-in-law, preferring instead to unload on a random stranger he meets in a cafe, louche ‘artist’, Sutherland (Tom Burke). Sutherland listens in bewilderment as Williams tells him that he’s never properly lived his life and his solution is to take Williams out on the lash, visiting a series of seedy bars and strip clubs. This offers Williams some momentary respite from his torture, but no real answers.
Next, he has a chance encounter with Miss Harris, and ultimately takes her into his confidence. These scenes could easily be creepy, but it’s clear that Williams is inspired not by lust, but by the young woman’s youth: her ability to take pleasure in the smallest things – like the knickerbocker glory she gleefully chooses when the two of them have lunch at Fortnum’s. It’s these scenes that are the film’s strongest suit and one lengthy monologue from Williams, as he recalls happier times, actually has me filling up with tears.
Ultimately, Living is all about the inability of people to communicate with each other and the point is eloquently made, but – given the film’s length and the fact that it moves with all the urgency of glacial erosion – it sometimes feels as though it makes it several times over. Williams’ elevation to a kind of sainthood, as his final moments are recalled by a passing police constable (Thomas Coombes), come dangerously close to mawkishness. Furthermore, there’s a part of me that feels there’s a kind of cheating going on here. Williams’ progressing illness is conveyed with little more than the occasional grimace and a discreet spot of blood on a handkerchief. Otherwise, he remains as perfectly attired and implacable as ever. None of the horrors of his cancer are ever shown and we all know, don’t we, that real life is never as convenient as that?
Still, there’s plenty to admire here. Nighy was doubtless put on this earth to play the role of Williams, his chiselled, impassive features somehow managing to convey the torment that lies beneath that calm exterior – and Wood is simply adorable as the ingenue who breezes briefly through the fusty atmosphere of the office, before moving on to better things. Kudos should also go to the sound department, for the lustrous music that underpins the films key moments, accentuating the poignancy and regret of the central premise. The era is convincingly evoked, right down to the opening and closing credits and Sandy Powell’s meticulous costume design is, as ever, spot on.
A final thought. I wonder if this – like the film that inspired it – would have looked even more sumptuous in black and white?
3. 8 stars