In 1950s London, a humourless civil servant decides to take time off work to experience life after receiving a grim diagnosis.
Akira Kurosawa was a prolific artist and cinematic icon who gained international acclaim with Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954). Situated between those sweeping epics was one of the filmmaker’s most beloved masterpieces, Ikiru (1952), inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The film explored mortality and empathy through a bureaucrat suffering from a terminal illness and, like most of Kurosawa’s work, the philosophical tale was culturally permeable and infinitely adaptable. It takes bravery to remake a masterpiece and the mere thought of a remake might draw cries of sacrilege, but Oliver Harmanus (Moffie) reimagines the classic with precision and care. Written by the Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go), Living adheres closely to Kurosawa’s original but successfully transports the story to post-war London.
Taking place in 1952, London remains shattered by the devastating aftermath of World War II and the nation is still recovering. Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) is a respected civil servant running a small Public Works Department as the city struggles to rebuild. The widower’s days are filled with monotonous routines and he’s become stuck in an endless cycle of bureaucratic laziness and unfulfilled promises. He uses the same train every morning, presides over his colleagues as they sort through immense towers of paperwork, and then returns home with his frustrated son (Barney Fishwick) and cantankerous daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran). Then, after receiving a terminal medical diagnosis, Williams feels compelled to make the most of whatever time he has left—initially indulging in a hedonistic weekend with a rakish bohemian writer (Tom Burke). More notably, Williams finds himself drawn to the natural vitality of a young woman who once worked under his supervision, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), and becomes energised by her optimism and constructive nature. So he decides to spend his final months creating a legacy for the next generation…
The always-excellent Bill Nighy (Emma) delivers a compelling and heartrending performance that deserves far more than just his first Academy Award nomination. Undoubtedly, Living is anchored by the actor’s understated portrayal of Mr Williams. Always dressed in three-piece suits, the character is the epitome of the reserved English civil servant, being so punctual and formal in his behaviour and speech. Displaying a remarkable amount of restraint compared to his otherwise typecast expressiveness, Nighy conveys a wealth of emotional information with just his facial expressions and body language. His downcast gaze displays heartbreak and existential despair, whereas his vigorous posture communicates an aristocratic reserve. While Takashi Shimura’s central performance in Kurosawa’s original was particularly praised, he externalised the character’s desperation almost theatrically. Nighy’s more poised and nuanced, never overstating Williams’ palpable anguish and sudden reawakening. Therein lies the brilliance of his performance, within the sense of internalised complexity behind his veneer of calm and confidence. It’s a startling transformation for the actor and a memorable turn from an already distinguished career.
With the magnitude of its antecedents and sources, Living could have easily collapsed under the pressure of its predecessors. However, Oliver Hermanus directs with an elegant poignancy and visual splendour in equal measure. The director doesn’t try to replicate or imitate Kurosawa’s classic but simply speculates how Ikiru might have looked had it been a UK production. Historical accuracy seeps through every frame as Jamie D. Ramsay’s (See How they Run) cinematography envelops the audience with nostalgia from the outset. Opening with a gorgeous grainy montage of London’s most famous landmarks, the saturated visual palette is enriched by a multitude of red busses. Whereas his symmetrical compositions are meticulously framed in a classic Academic aspect ratio. Equally integral in crafting the authentic period details are Helen Scott’s (Fish Tank) distractingly beautiful production design and Sandy Powell’s (Mary Poppins Returns) captivating wardrobes. The tedious routines of the bureaucratic environment are visualised as impeccably cut pinstripe suits flowing through wooden offices. Hermanus’ visual approach pays wonderful homage to 1950s British cinema while maintaining Kurosawa’s sensibilities.
Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go) is a lifelong admirer of Kurosawa and his precisely adapted screenplay brings a fresh perspective to the themes explored in Ikiru. As demonstrated in The Remains of the Day (1993), the screenwriter has mastered weaving together Japanese and English sensibilities. Kurosawa critiqued the repressive complacency of post-war Japan, alongside the devastating effect of bureaucratic inaction and neglect. However, the setting in Living has been transported to 1950s Britain on its own cautious recovery following WWII. Ishiguro’s satire of public administration is somewhat diluted compared to Kurosawa’s but feels very similar. The Public Works Department is a monument of incompetence where documents and passed from one faceless office to another. Anyone in need of personal assistance is immediately referred to the next department over. The group of frustrated women on their quest for a new children’s playground expect nothing to come of their request. As one of the mothers refers to the Department as “a good old Punch and Judy show. We the citizens are Judy, and all you lot are Punch”. Similar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), the merciless satirising of government inefficiency feels governed by a quintessential English reserve.
While its quaint and uplifting tone may be reminiscent of other British productions including The King’s Speech (2010) and Mrs Harris Goes To Paris (2022), Living remains faithful to Kurosawa’s inspirational themes and melancholic spirit. Although there are some obvious differences both culturally and narratively, Ishiguro’s adaptation remarkably translates psychology equivalents that work very well. Hermanus reconstructs familiar concepts of seizing the day and makes them resonate once more for a contemporary audience. Beneath the emphasis on bureaucratic conformity is a poignant undercurrent about the transcendent power of helping others. Following his diagnosis, Williams is overcome with a great sense of emptiness. He initially searches for meaning by spending an epicurean evening drinking alcohol and watching burlesque shows with the playwright Talbot (Jamie Wilkes). Ultimately, these activities prove to be unfulfilling and his moment of clarity arrives when he encounters his only female subordinate, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood).
Through his interactions with Margaret, Williams fondly remembers his formative years before the capitalist machine stripped away his hopeful optimism. Those childhood memories subsequently remind him of the diligent group of women petitioning for the construction of a new children’s playground. After perpetually burying their proposal under a stack of papers, Williams decides to use his bureaucratic powers to create the new park and make a difference in the world. Similar to Kurosawa’s original, the children’s playground becomes a symbol of fulfilment and the definition of a life well lived. During the emotional conclusion, Williams spends his final moments sitting on the swing in the middle of the park he created. He may not have brought down an uncaring system, but he’s satisfied with his accomplishment and finally understands he can die a happy man. Williams’s journey of self-discovery and purpose is emotionally resonant without being saccharine or manipulative. Hermanus and Ishiguro successfully pull this off without betraying the aspirational nature of Kurosawa’s classic.
UK • JAPAN • SWEDEN | 2022 | 102 MINUTES | 1:48:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Presented in its original 1:48:1 aspect ratio, Living boasts a phenomenal 1080p transfer courtesy of Lionsgate’s Films. Captured primarily on Arri Alexa cameras, the digital photography showcases a beautifully rich presentation while evoking the period it represents. Initially, the transfer appears awash in a healthy layer of grain during the opening newsreel footage of 1950s London. However, as Wakerling (Alex Sharp) boards the train the image becomes naturally sharp. The levels of detail are sublime and viewers will appreciate the transfer’s ability to clearly showcase even the finest textures. Sandy Powell’s (Mary Poppins Returns) highly detailed costume design allows individual threads and patterns to be discernible in different lighting conditions. Whereas the subtle wooden patterns in various offices appear naturally sharp and stable across the entire frame. Flesh tones appear natural and facial complexions appear visible, revealing the finest blemishes across Bill Nighy’s face. Colours remain stable but there are some small minor fluctuations during several introspective flashback scenes. Regardless, the picture quality is superb throughout and borders on looking like a 4K transfer.
Presented with an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with optional subtitles, Living sounds rich and pleasing throughout. Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s (Censor) beautiful score is wonderfully reproduced. The composer’s haunting strings and melancholic melodies are well-balanced and sweep the soundstage during key moments. Unfortunately, there’s not much in terms of hugely aggressive sound effects. However, the subwoofer is well utilised during a handful of sequences as Williams enjoys Brighton’s nightlife. Supporting sound effects create an immersive atmosphere and are nicely implemented through the side and rear channels. Subtle atmospherics including gentle footfall and distant traffic noises are handled nicely and can be heard in every direction. The gentle dialogue is effectively discernible and dispersed primarily at the front. The track captures every slur, stutter and nervous audible tick with exceptional accuracy. Living may not push sound systems to their limits, but it’s an exceptional Dramatic soundtrack that delivers what’s required with astonishing ease.
director: Oliver Hermanus.
writer: Kazuo Ishiguro (based on the film “Ikiru”, itself inspired by the novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy).
starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood & Alex Sharp.