Bill Nighy shines in this moving remake of Japanese classic Ikiru
Dir. Oliver Hermanus
What would you do if you had sixth months to live? It’s a question many have absent-mindedly pondered, and one that sits at the heart of Living, a new drama from South African director Oliver Hermanus. When ageing London County Council bureaucrat Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) is given a terminal diagnosis, his first response is to take half his life savings out of the bank and head for the coast in search of a good time. When this proves unfulfilling, he resolves to find new meaning in the little time he has left.
Nobel prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro has adapted his screenplay from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, moving the action from Tokyo to London but retaining the 1950s setting and most of the story beats. Remaking such classic of Japanese cinema might seem a tall order, but it’s easy to see why Ishiguro was attracted to the idea; anyone familiar with the author’s 1988 novel The Remains of the Day will know he is no stranger to stories of emotionally stunted men in the twilight of their lives questioning the values to which they had blindly dedicated themselves.
Nighy provides one of the finest turns of his career, the reserved and soft-spoken Mr Williams being utterly detached from the larger-than-life charisma typically embodied by the veteran actor. Indeed, Williams’ relative silence for much of the film allows Nighy to communicate a remarkable spectrum of emotion through his physicality, breathing palpable depth and warmth into a character whose outward appearance seems cold and impenetrable. His gradual journey from stoicism, to grief and regret, and finally into determined resolution is wholly believable – so believable that many of the supporting players struggle to keep up, with the exception of an entertaining cameo from the ever-reliable Tom Burke, and the film loses some of it’s momentum whenever Nighy isn’t on screen.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be moved as the film reaches a cathartic emotional climax. Ishiguro’s script is unafraid to flirt with melodrama or sentimentality, but it’s laced with a dry sense of humour which, along with the solidity of Nighy’s central performance and Hermanus’ taut direction, prevents the film from descending into mawkishness. Living is never quite as profound or visually impressive as Kurosawa’s original, but it’s nonetheless an affecting fable on facing death and the importance of finding joy and meaning within the mundane.