Director: Oliver Hermanus
Screenwriters: Kazuo Ishiguro
Starring: Bill Nighy, Alex Sharp, Aimee Lou Wood, Tom Burke
Touching one of the most revered films by one of the most revered directors to ever call ‘Action’ on a film set is always a tricky business. And when it’s Akira Kurosawa you’re remaking – specifically his 1952 film Ikiru – you had better hope that your film is damn good. Living (2022) attempts to do such a thing, transplanting post-war Japan for post-war Britain. It sees Bill Nighy take on the lead role of Mr Williams, an elderly civil servant mindlessly going through the motions, who goes on a search for a new meaning to life when he is dealt a cruel blow in the doctor’s office.
There has not been much change from the original film, which was released 70 years ago. Indeed, many shots and sequences, (including a shot of Mr Williams’ vacant seat framed centrally with his subordinates either side of the picture, a wipe montage sequence of a group of petitioning ladies going from department to department to be seen to with no luck, and the famous shot of our lonely wanderer on a child’s swing) are all lifted directly from the original. This is simply a British re-telling of the film, not an attempt to do anything radically new with the subject matter. It is almost identical, save for a slight modification of a few sequences, a condensing in runtime by about half an hour, and some fun experiments with film form with regards to its quality and some periods of black and white photography. The choice to present Living in a smaller aspect ratio of 1.48:1 keeps it contained and subdued, perhaps also reflecting the time period in which this aspect ratio was far more common.
What could be an incredibly run-of-the-mill adaptation still holds great power for numerous reasons. That the core story is moving by default, is the first. Secondly, Bill Nighy (nominated in the Actor in a Leading Role category at the 95th Oscars) is utterly astonishing. Simply portrayed, yet heartbreaking and incredibly moving, he is a delight in every frame that passes by. He’s perfectly suited to the role, and excels beyond imagination. The supporting cast of Aimee Lou Wood (‘Sex Education’), Tom Burke (The Souvenir), Alex Sharp (The Trial of the Chicago 7), and others, are also on point, and lend great support to the central pillar. The score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, who also composed for British independent films Rocks and Censor, is fabulous, the world of post-war Britain well realised with what is plainly a smaller budget, and the direction from South African Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) is simple and refined.
What more could one ask for? Well… perhaps the exclusion of a section of dialogue on a train three quarters of the way through; one which is so excruciatingly painful and on-the-nose – a literal explanation of the message of the film incorporating gag-worthy speeches – that even a five year old would wish to throw up. Such a beautifully nuanced film is almost completely derailed by what seems to be a lack of common sense from BAFTA-nominated screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro. Cut that dialogue, have it be told through subtext, and we’re bordering on as near flawless as we can get.
One must wish that this single exchange was left on the cutting room floor, though this disappointing sequence ultimately doesn’t detract from the rest of what is a well-constructed and interesting adaptation. Living, the 2022 period drama based on a story from 7 decades ago, is certainly a film one could go on living for.
Living is on digital 3 March and Blu-ray & DVD 13 March 2023.