In the 1950s, post war Japan and post war Britain shared more similarity than might seem immediately obvious. Both bomb riddled countries had major rebuilding to do, and both countries were steeped in social structures wherein quiet ineffectual bureaucrats could while away their lives.
As a homage to how nothing ever gets done, Living (a remake of the classic 1952 Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru) feels as British as they come.
What Is Living About?
Such a feeling doesn’t stem from bowler hats, cups of tea, and queuing (although these are plentiful). Senior London County Council bureaucrat Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) has spent his time parking paperwork on his desk where it will ‘do no harm’.
Much like the Japanese obsession with proper procedure, Mr Williams’ strict adherence to rules results in a job that seems more concerned with blocking work rather than doing any.
Once in receipt of a medical report that tells him his days are numbered, Mr Williams is forced to reassess his life and his role.
Director Oliver Hermanus and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro thereafter craft a film that explores whether mundanity really is inevitable, and how the will to do good is so often ground out of people.
Many will undoubtedly be familiar with how office workplaces can settle into what shouldn’t be done rather than what could.
The movie opens with bright-eyed newcomer Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp). A determined group of women are petitioning to clear an old bomb site and build a playground. An unwitting Mr Wakeling tries to help them, before quickly discovering that every department is of the opinion that such a task falls under the purview of another one.
Such scenarios hardly scream ‘drama’, but Living is a gloriously beautiful and understated movie which is brightened up immeasurably by a masterful performance from Nighy.
Even once the bad news hits and Mr Williams skips work to find some meaning, he hardly shifts into Bacchus style debauchery. But Nighy singing a soulful drunken song, or letting a glimmer of a smile escape at a new experience, speaks volumes more.
Living Official Trailer
Is Living Worth Watching?
It isn’t just internal factors shaking Mr Williams up from his reverie. Outside help (however indirectly) comes from vivacious team member Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood, Sex Education).
She alone seems willing to shake off the shackles of council work (although it’s left open if this is for the better) and in doing so sparks something in Mr Williams. The mixture of subtle emotions he goes through when a lovely conversation turns to Miss Harris’ nickname for him is Nighy is at his utmost best.
Although only a relatively short film at a little over an hour and a half, Hermanus’ use of close ups, slow zooms, and lengthy scenes do make the film feel longer.
It is thankful that Nighy and others can hold attention so well because at times the pace threatens to shunt to a complete stop.
Much like how Mr Williams is taken to places of salacious behaviour by a random encounter with a friendly playwright (a wonderful supporting role for Strike actor Tom Burke), the experience comes from soaking everything in.
Living is a masterclass in humanity, even at its most apparently mundane. The ennui is more likely to appeal to people who have a few years under their belt than those pure young-uns to whom the world is still at their feet.
If you are still gifted with youth yourself then maybe take Living and park it in the ‘to watch’ pile on your desk. It’ll do no harm there.
Words by Mike Record
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