Director: Oliver Hermanus
Writers: Ishiguro Kazuo (screenplay), Kurosawa Akira, Hashimoto Shinobu, Oguni Hideo (Ikiru screenplay)
Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Adrian Rawlins, Hubert Burton, Oliver Chris, Tom Burke, Barney Fishwick
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley
Music: Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch
Cinematographer: Jamie Ramsay
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Running time: 103mins
What’s the story: In postwar London, Mr. Williams (Nighy), a buttoned-down city council planning manager, discovers he is dying of cancer. With less than a year to live, he decides to do one last meaningful thing.
What’s the verdict: Kurosawa Akira’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru tells the story of a postwar Tokyo city bureaucrat, Mr. Watanabe, whose life of paper shuffling monotony is up ended when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. With only months left, Watanabe quietly manipulates labyrinthine red tape to accomplish something special.
It’s a particularly Japanese tale, coming from a country with the tellingly popular phrase, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Watching Mr. W, brilliantly played by Kurosawa regular Shimura Takashi, politely chip away at the calcified structures of city planning is, in its own way, as thrilling as any samurai spectacular the director put on screen.
What a joy it is then to discover that Living successfully relocates the action to dear old Blighty, with Mr. Watanabe now Bill Nighy’s equally taciturn Mr. Williams. The poignancy and beauty of Kurosawa’s original has been retained, in large part due to the input of co-producer and writer Ishiguro Kazuo. Ishiguro is someone who understands both Japan and Britain, two island nations with much in common when it comes to repression, hidden passion, fears, and quirks.
Aware that this story only really works in an age of a rigid class system, he and director Oliver Hermanus set their film in a convincingly recreated postwar period of the early 1950s. But the premise is timeless, and Bill Nighy perfectly cast as a man whose aloofness masks decades of doubt and regret. Not that this is a misery-fest. All involved tap the story for moments of humour, from Mr. Williams bunking off work to take ex-office junior Miss Harris (Wood) for afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason’s, to the bemusement of his staff at the boss’ sudden absenteeism, to his jaunty new hat.
As with Ikiru, the office wallflower initially attempts to live it up, with a seaside jolly accompanied by writer Sutherland (an exuberant Tom Burke). Here is one of the most Japanese moments of Living, with Williams confiding his diagnosis to a stranger, yet unable to do so with his unthinkingly self-centred son Michael (Fishwick).
But, someone who has dedicated his life to work inevitably knows that is where he is most useful. Soon Mr. Williams is working on his last meaningful act before time catches him. It is wonderfully modest, but purely magical, and we’ll not spoil it here.
Everything clicks, down to the film’s look echoing British classics of yesteryear, including the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio. Despite running almost 40 minutes shorter than the original, Hermanus’ film (co-produced by Kurosawa Productions) faithfully lifts and shifts the earlier movie’s plot. Including a story jump that deepens the pathos and the celebration of a life lived, albeit late in the day. Ishiguro paraphrases dialogue from the original script (“I can’t get angry at people. I don’t have that kind of time”), and Ikiru fans will be pleased to read a wind-up soft toy makes an appearance.
No-one in the cast hits a duff note. Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood is sparkling as Miss Harris, Alex Sharp all eager-faced enthusiasm as office newbie Mr. Wakeling, and suitably wry and/or starched performances are delivered by Rawlins, Chris, and Burton as Williams’ staff.
But, this is Nighy’s movie and to repeat, he is perfectly cast in what could be the key role of his career. Mr. Williams is as well-tailored to Nighy’s talents as his suits are to the actor’s slim frame, and his performance will tug every one of your heartstrings. No surprise that a film from the writer of The Remains of the Day will be a tearjerker, but heavens, does Living leave you damp-eyed.
Written and directed by two non-Brits, this also gloriously captures traditional Englishness with the wry observation of the outsider. The natty pin-striped suits and bowler hats, the well-spoken civility and politeness, the joy of a perfectly prepared afternoon tea (Wood’s elation upon seeing a knickerbocker glory is spot on). Plus, the archly polite passive-aggressiveness that becomes a superpower when deployed in correct circumstances.
Simply one of 2022’s best movies.