Living Review – One of the Most Beautiful and Melancholy Films of the Year

Just as the American West has served as the perfect translocation for remakes of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films, London in 1953 is exactly the right setting for a remake of the director’s satire on bureaucracy and meditation on what it is to live, Ikiru (1952). Kurosawa’s film was brimming with anger about post-war Japan that is given a much softer treatment in the Kazuo Ishiguro scripted version Living directed by Oliver Hermanus.

The genius of Living is the adaptation by Ishiguro – an author who intimately understands the parallels between Japanese and British society, and one whose own work, especially The Remains of the Day comprehended that a life filled with blind duty and repression led to a life without great happiness, even when that happiness was in reach if only Stevens had the courage to reach for it.

For those unfamiliar with Kurosawa’s film it revolves around an ageing civil servant who works in a labyrinthine public office where the goal of the job is seemingly to do as little as possible. A narrator tells the audience that Watanabe-san (Takashi Shimura) is about to learn that he is dying but that he has been living as a corpse already for most of his life. In Living Watanabe is replaced by Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) whose main career purpose seems to be upholding the pointlessness of unbridled bureaucracy, which, as long as it is done with propriety, is the backbone of the County Hall in London.

Instead of narration introducing the viewer to Mr Williams it is his subordinates in the office of Public Works who fill in newcomer Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) to the man’s character (“Upright but frosty”) and the particular social order the office follows. Wakeling’s naïve keenness to do some good is soon shown to be not how the public service operates. He is attracted to the humour and vivacity of his soon to be ex co-worker, Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) and gets a firsthand glimpse of how departments do everything they can to avoid responsibility for a problem when he is assigned to help a group of women petitioning for a playground in a bombed out working-class urban site on Chester Street.

That same day Williams is diagnosed with cancer and given at most six months to live. With traditional British reserve his only response to the news is “Quite.” He returns to his middle-class home outside of London where he lives with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and Michael’s somewhat venal wife, Fiona (Patsy Ferran). Ishiguro and Hermanus use Williams’ memories as a snapshot of the man. Starting in black and white and moving into colour we see Williams and Michael as they are in a car travelling behind the hearse carrying Michael’s mother. A memory of a relative telling Williams to remarry is next, followed by Williams recalling what it was like to raise Michael on his own, and then the relief he felt when the young man returned from war. His deep affection for his son has been whittled away by the young man becoming increasingly selfish and his wife pushing for money so they can move out of the stuffy cottage they share with Williams.

Williams’ diagnosis makes him do something unexpected, he simply does not turn up to work. Instead he takes himself to the seaside where he meets Mr Sutherland (Tom Burke) a professional writer of purple prose and a habit of living life on the morally dubious fringes. Williams offers Sutherland his collected bottles of sleeping pills (collected for the occasion of his suicide which he no longer wants to go through with) and explains to the man that he is dying. Sutherland say that he had best then take the opportunity to live, Williams replies sadly that “He doesn’t know how.”

A night of mild drunken debauchery ensues with Sutherland leading the way. Nightclubs, amusement arcades, dive bars, a burlesque show and a stolen bowler hat fill the evening. Sutherland’s way of living is not for Williams as they both discover as the men lock eyes and Sutherland sees a real dying man who is more than a symbol for him to exploit as a potentially brave soul facing mortality.

The next day Williams is back in London with a fedora replacing his bowler and he runs into Miss Harris on the street. She requires a written reference for her new job “managing” a local Lyons restaurant. Williams invites the vivacious young woman to Fortnums (think super posh) for lunch where he will write her reference. All bucked-toothed and full of verve, Miss Harris proves a balm for Williams. She jokes with him about the office and reveals her secret nickname for him, Mr. Zombie. Williams appreciates the irony of the name but appreciates the company more. A platonic, although not entirely appropriate, friendship develops between the two and for once Williams is able to express what he is going through and what it means to who he once thought he was.

Where Kurosawa had the similar character of Toyo reject Watanabe for clinging to her as a means of discovering life, Hermanus and Ishiguro present a gentler version of the character in Margaret Harris. Williams tells Margaret that he always wanted to be an upright fellow and did everything that was expected of him, but he believes that he was a child who dutifully waited to be called in from the playground instead of a child that rebelled at being told playtime was over. This revelation brings him back to County Hall in London where he decides the one thing he can do is create the playground for the Chester Street women.

Like Ikiru the film cuts suddenly to his funeral where mourners try to make sense of his seemingly sudden death. Unlike Ikiru where the memorial for Watanabe was where a majority of the bickering about the man takes place, Living opts for a more drawn-out assessment of what made Williams decide to devote his time to building the playground.

Living is by far a gentler film than Ikiru, and a more hopeful one. The criticism of British propriety is not weakened, and how the other members of the office of public works pick over Williams’ motivations for fighting bureaucracy and forcing the building of the park, only to (with the exception of Wakeling) to quickly drop any pretence of being inspired by him by immediately reverting to their lazy and avoidant ways. There is a stronger sense that the small legacy that Williams created will live on in a new generation with Margaret and Wakeling.

Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as Williams, an actor who has managed to bring comedic and dramatic aplomb to so many roles. It is believed that Ishiguro himself said to Nighy that if ever a remake of Ikiru be in production it was the perfect role for him. Essentially that conversation kicked off Living although at that stage Ishiguro had no intention of adapting a screenplay.

In conjunction with Ishiguro’s note perfect script and Oliver Hermanus’ beautiful direction aided by his regular cinematographer Jamie Ramsay, the production design by Helen Scott and the gorgeous costumes by Sandy Powell bring post-war London to vivid life. Living is an undeniably handsome production which exists as its own film (those who have not seen Ikiru will recognise Living’s tender humanism as a unique entity).

Living is quite simply one of the most beautiful and melancholy films of 2022. Every aspect works in harmony to craft an emotionally poignant experience. It may lack the bleak satire of Kurosawa’s film, but in many ways that is to its benefit. It will have the audience questioning their own existences and morality in a manner that is not moribund but gently reassuring.

Director: Oliver Hermanus

Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp

Writer: Kazuo Ishiguro, (Based on the film Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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