Few actors can vary between high-brow art and pop insanity. Yet Bill Nighy fits the bill. The actor plays vampires, step-fathers in zombie classics, men looking for new love in India, and pop stars looking to return to prominence. No role has ever been too big or too small for Nighy. Due to his willingness to commit to any role that he takes, he’s developed as one of the great performers of his generation. In Living, he finally receives a gorgeous vehicle suited for his performance style. Based on Akira Kurosawa‘s Ikiru, Nighy delivers his career-best work in the drama. It’s a story about giving back and the one small act that can affect the world in unsuspecting ways.
Directed by Oliver Hermanus, Living follows three primary perspectives. Nighy portrays Mr. Williams, a local bureaucrat who lived his entire life by the book. When diagnosed with a terminal disease, Mr. Williams reevaluates his life. As Williams partakes in new experiences, he spends time with former employee Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood). The final perspective comes from Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp). A new employee of Mr. Williams, Wakeling helps Williams complete a playground project for the community.
For Nighy, Living represents a subtle, internal Scrooge looking to change his ways. Nighy plays the role with grace and layers in subtext from his first moments. One can easily argue Williams’ repression affected every aspect of his life, from his sexuality to his ideology. Nighy plays into stereotypes of British repression in such an extreme manner. His lack of a reaction at hearing he has cancer borders on satire. Yet Nighy’s internal reaction can be read across his eyes, with fear and anger at a life poorly lived catching up with him in moments. We watch him process his impending death with small acts of rebellion, and with each small act, Nighy gives us more of Williams’ personality. It’s an exercise in restraint (it would be easy to go too big), and an absolutely stunning performance.
It would also be impossible to ignore Aimee Lou Wood’s performance. The Sex Education star delivers a brilliant supporting turn. She gets to charm and shine alongside Nighy but never feels false. It’s a lively performance that stands in stark contrast to Williams, and as she helps him out of his shell, Wood’s emotional performance comes out of its shell. She’s already delivering excellent work on television, but this confirms she’s one of our most exciting young stars.
Hermanus and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro do not seek to reinvent the wheel in Living. Instead, they transport most of Ikiru to 1950s London. Yet the small flourishes they add to the visuals and screenplay help Living soar. Everything about Hermanus’ film feels timeless, which has helped Ikiru remain a classic to this day. Yet transporting the story to the stiff-upper-lip society of London fits the tale like a glove. With brilliant production design and Sandy Powell‘s excellent costumes, its easy to fall into the period setting.
It’s a rare case of refocusing the narrative material in a new location that inherently changes the text in subtle ways. In this case, Kurosawa’s story inherently comments on Western bureaucracy, societal norms, and conservatism that limits understanding. In many ways, one could even argue it’s a wildly anti-capitalist film within this context, instead focusing on the power of social programs in bettering lives. Even a project as small as a playground is worth the government’s investment in its people.
Ishiguro’s screenplay is a surprisingly effective retelling. Few screenwriters inherently understand British repression like Ishiguro, and he delivers on that front. Like Nighy, its achievement lies in the subtlety of this adaptation. However, this material is already brilliant. One can knock Living for following Ikiru a little too closely, even as it opens important doors for this version of the protagonist. While Ishiguro lands the plane, Living never quite rises to the brilliance of its source material.
Living never attempts to subvert its sentimental message that we can improve the world. In many ways, Kurosawa’s Dickensian tale has always been an earnest plea to audiences. Putting ourselves in the position to be genuine and vulnerable is scary. Yet in Living, losing ourselves to corporatism and losing the ability to enjoy ourselves is a fate worse than death. Nighy makes that clear from moment one, and thanks to his brilliance, its impossible to ignore Living.