Living is a story about a dying man that is really about the human capacity to do good things that enrich the lives of those around us. A remake of the 1952 Akira Kurosawa-directed classic Ikiru, it recreates that movie fairly faithfully, hitting all the same story beats in pretty similar ways, as well as delivering the same strong message. While it isn’t as good as the original, not many movies are. Still, it features an excellent lead performance and does justice to the subtle emotions of its moving story.
The year is 1953. Mr. Williams is a high-ranking bureaucrat in his local city government. Everybody follows the rules so stringently that anything not of the utmost importance gets shunted from department to department and is eventually forgotten. When Mr. Williams learns he has a terminal illness and is given 6-9 months to live, it shakes him to his very core, inspiring him to break out of the shell of his routine.
Living (97 minutes, without the end credits) has been nominated for two Oscars. One is for Kazuo Ishiguro’s adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s screenplay and the other is for lead actor Bill Nighy’s work as Mr. Williams. The screenplay is good and would probably be enjoyed even more on its own merits by those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching the 1952 version. Ishiguro transplants the story from Japan to England flawlessly, which gives its takedown of governmental department uselessness more bite. I imagine the frustration they cause is universal. Ishiguro gives a little extra time to some of the minor characters, showing Mr. Williams’ impact on them in a more direct way. It is solid work that builds on what came before it.
Nighy’s performance is fantastic. Mr. Williams is a quiet man, focused on doing his job the way it was meant to be done, going home for a nice meal with his son and daughter-in-law, then resting up for another long day of pushing papers around. He is not mean or uncaring; he’s merely following his role. Sacrificing an exciting life to provide for his son just makes sense. When he gets his diagnosis, his world comes into clearer focus. His work helps nobody, his son is not worthy of his efforts and he realizes that nothing he has done matters.
Ishiguro only gives him a couple of small speeches, so Nighy plays it all on his face and it is devastating. Imagine hearing you are about to die and having it immediately occur to you that you never really lived. The screenplay doesn’t wring this for pathos. Mr. Williams wouldn’t feel comfortable emoting at that level. Nighy shows him as a good man who never took the time to actually do anything good, but now wants to know what it is like to feel alive. His performance is at least the equal of Takashi Shimura’s from the original and contains the same amount of power.
Ikiru is a masterpiece by a legend of the cinema. It is one of the few movies that truly makes me want to be a better person. Whenever I watch it, it inspires me to consider what my actions could mean to others and what I could do to make at least my small corner of the world a better place. Living didn’t quite have that effect on me. However, I can see how it could hit others that way. For me, it strayed from its central message a little too much and wasn’t as smooth in some of its story transitions. The end result is a satisfying updating of a brilliant work of art, that still concludes with one of the most touching final scenes in cinema history.
3½ out of 5
Bill Nighy as Williams
Aimee Lou Wood as Margaret Harris
Alex Sharp as Peter Wakeling
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro