A passion project of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Living is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 picture Ikiru, about a bureaucrat who discovers he has terminal cancer and doesn’t have long to live. Remaking Kurosawa isn’t a new thing by any stretch of the imagination, but you should at least make it worthwhile. Does Living match up to that?
Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy) is a bureaucrat heading up a division of London County Council circa 1953. He lives with his son and daughter-in-law and seems to be going through the motions, with his only vice a weekly trip to the cinema. His department is no real help, just helping perpetuate the council’s reputation as useless, and he owns that.
However, Williams soon discovers he has stomach cancer, and is given six to nine months to live. He heads to the local seaside resort of Worthing with a pile of cash and sleeping pills intending to end his own life, but instead finds himself having a night on the town with a local playwright. Invigorating him, he decides that he should at least try and live a little before shuffling off the mortal coil, although admits he doesn’t really know how to, so he enlists the help of co-worker Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood).
Living is the type of film that exists for its acting – indeed, Ishiguro had always dreamed that he would be able to cast Nighy in the lead role. Nighy is, of course, fantastic. People have called it a career-best performance, but don’t get too carried away. I remember Viktor in the Underworld movies.
It’s a subtle performance; Nighy slowly draws out the spirit of Williams and it’s quite wonderful to watch, as well as painful. There’s a sequence where he sings the traditional Scottish song ‘The Rowan Tree’ in a pub and it’s a wonderful moment, life-affirming and vital, as well as heartbreaking. Singing is such a basic human pleasure, and here it doesn’t only illustrate that, but also its role as a holder of memories and moments lost in the ether.
The film is impeccably cast, really. Wood is excellent as Williams’ would-be guide to life, full of energy and crackling electricity, which she uses to draw Williams out of his shell like a shaman. You can see exactly why he would pick her, and also why he would be a bit infatuated with her. I’m already a bit in love with her.
Director Oliver Hermanus does a fine job with the material and it’s not showy in the slightest. The production design makes a great job of pretending it’s London in the ’50s, and the cinematography has a slightly desaturated look to help sell that. A special nod should also go to Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s gorgeous score; it’s a really special touch that adds a layer of emotion and class to the film. The picture also makes use of several pieces of classical music in a way that assists the storytelling wonderfully, and it’s great to see.
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Lionsgate have presented Living with a perfect transfer at its original aspect ratio of 1.48:1 with DTS-HD MA audio. The disc also has audio description, which is a rarity. In terms of extras, there are a set of cast and crew video interviews with Nighy, Wood, Ishiguro, and Hermanus. They’re brief, but informative, although I would have liked more from Ishiguro, maybe a commentary, as this was his dream project.
Living is an excellent film that is confident enough in its actors to let them stand out. Nighy is brilliant, as is Wood. It’s a fine rendition of the original material, although it never reaches the point of becoming essential. Next to Kurosawa, that’s almost impossible anyway.