Living – Movie Review

Living

  • Director: Oliver Hermanus
  • Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharpe, Tom Burke

Grade: B

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is one of the celebrated director’s greatest films, a towering, humanistic achievement in a filmography that’s full of them. So why give yourself the tall task of remaking that film in an English context? To the credit of Living, Kurosawa’s film can be easily translated into virtually any time period or culture. And proper British society in the 1950s shares many of the work-first mentality that was reflected in the 1952 version.

Ikiru paved the way for many of the overly sentimental films of the past 70+ years, a character study about finding purpose in life after squandering so much of it. Living, directed by Oliver Hermanus and written by Kazuo Ishiguro, is similarly weighted and has a solid enough emotional core to stand on its own, but still lives in the shadow of the source material. It’s anchored by a career-best performance by Bill Nighy, who plays Mr. Williams, a government bureaucrat who trudges through life one day at a time without ever thinking about what he’s leaving behind. Nighy imbues Williams with a quiet restitution, resolved to connect with as many people as he can in the time he has left. 

Early in the film, he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a few months to live. At first, he sets out by trying to step outside himself and do the things he’s only ever dreamed of. He meets up with Tom Burke’s Mr. Sutherland and the pair engage in a night of debauchery after Williams empties his life savings. But after Williams realizes his life isn’t any more fulfilled, he connects with a plucky former employee, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood). Nighy and Wood have fantastic chemistry together, and the film follows in its predecessor’s footsteps by resisting the urge to pair them together romantically.

Of course, this doesn’t stop William’s son Hart (Oliver Chris) and his wife Fiona (Patsy Ferran) from hearing the gossip second-hand and raising concerns for him. This is where Living varies the greatest from Kurosawa’s film: it’s heavily implied throughout the film that Williams has an estranged relationship with his son, but Hermanus never fully explores the source of it.

One smart device that Hermanus employs but doesn’t underline too heavily is in the visual use of mirrors throughout the film. In nearly every scene, a mirror can be seen, usually behind a character, thus implying that these people have the capacity to look inwards but don’t take advantage of it. Indeed, Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography utilizes the unique period setting to create some striking imagery. And Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s score helps to set the mood to match the script.

It’s always important to ask, when a classic film is remade, whether the updated version justifies its own existence. Nighy is undoubtedly the selling point of Living, finally getting the spotlight after a long and storied career of supporting roles. Beyond that, the film mostly feels like an exercise in filmmaking, not terribly unlike Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Today’s audiences, generally averse to seeking out unfamiliar classics, will surely get a lot more out of Living, and it’s to the film’s credit that it never feels like a waste of time or effort, as is the case with many other updates or legacy projects. Indeed, at the film’s climax, I found myself overcome with the emotions the film was selling, in spite of knowing exactly what would happen. And if that isn’t enough of an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

Living will be released in theaters nationwide on January 27.

OSCAR POTENTIAL:

  • Nighy received his first Best Actor nomination throughout his long career. A win is unlikely.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro also found a way into the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

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