‘Living’: Nighy deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination in this affecting, tender Kurosawa remake

“Living” (2022) – The year is 1953 in the UK. 

As director Oliver Hermanus’ film – a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru” – opens, London is alive! 

The city bustles with vitality with residents, tourists, various vehicles, and those classic AEC Routemaster red, double-decker busses traversing across the pavement while “Serenade for Strings in E” gloriously bounces in the background. Also, Hermanus includes a title sequence that looks like the film is straight out of the 1950s.  He and writer Kazuo Ishiguro offer a time machine to the last century for 97 mesmerizing minutes about the human condition.

“Living” is an affecting, beautifully crafted, and meticulously shot picture that connects us with this specific time and space.  More importantly, the film resonates with the universal idea of making the most of our lives in the here and now. Our individual realities can fly by without awareness when – one day – an ordinary mirror or windowpane exposes old age.  Bill Nighy taps us on the shoulder as we follow Mr. Williams’ (Nighy) journey in a performance that deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

After the opening and a few pleasantries, the movie travels to the London County Council.

Several departments – like Parks, Education, and other familiar monikers – fill the LCC’s massive building.  Men wear sharp suits and bowler hats.  Women sport flowery-patterned dresses, and their hairdos are styled perfectly like the ladies took 2-hour trips to the salons each morning before their 8 a.m. shifts begin. 

Typewriters click and clack, and small metal bins – that sit on mahogany desks – hold stacks of paperwork.  Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) refers to the paper piles as “skyscrapers.”

While the city feels lively, work goes to die at the London County Council. 

Mr. Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp)

Those aforementioned skyscrapers represent projects, needs, and reports that are literally shuffled throughout the building, as bureaucrats routinely redirect responsibility for filling these requests to rival divisions. 

At the Public Works Department, you’ll find a team of six – five men and one woman – huddled around a large bureau as they speak with cordial formalities.  The dignified, reserved leader is Mr. Williams.  His subordinates follow his example with discreet, proper conversation, as they tend to procedures. 

Mr. Williams, Mr. Middleton (Adrian Rawlins), Mr. Hart (Oliver Chris), Mr. Rusbridger (Hubert Burton), and Miss Harris (Wood) spend their working days at Public Works, and Mr. Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) – a young, plucky upstart – strolls in on his first day as an objective observer of this insulated operation.  The “misters” are all resigned to their weekday actualities, but Margaret wishes to leave the group for an assistant manager’s position outside the LCC.  Meanwhile, Peter attempts to fit in and make sense of it all.

It first appears that Mr. Wakeling is the film’s prime protagonist, a difference-maker for his co-workers, but the focus quickly shifts to Mr. Williams due to an appointment that breaks up the workday.  Williams leaves at “20 past 3,” and one might immediately wonder if this is the first instance that he’s ever left the office before 5 p.m. 

This offsite meeting triggers an immediate alert for Williams, one that requires self-reflection, and the story follows him home and other locales.

Nighy – with his slim frame, narrow face, and dignified diction – offers susceptibility, regret, and fear with Mr. Williams, however, the Public Works head does reach out for salvation. 

Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy)

Sometimes, Williams clearly and demonstratively communicates his feelings in silence, like when he ponders a frank discussion with his adult son.

During other occasions, Williams opens up to two unlikely allies:  Miss Harris and Sutherland, a random stranger played by Tom Burke.  These two everyday heroes and their generosities allow the audience to listen to Mr. Williams’ confessionals, and the moments are eternally critical, so we can bond with our lead and help diagnose his next steps. 

There’s also one moment around the film’s 33rd minute that will absolutely break your heart, where Williams doesn’t sit in silence nor speak, but he shares his soul in the most unexpected way.    

Still, for the long game, he must initiate meaningful changes.  However, after 70 years of living in one way, how is Williams equipped to shift his mindset? 

Mr. Williams (Nighy) and Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood)

Through Nighy’s engrossing portrayal of a leader’s attempt to transform his wiring, Williams may accomplish more than he could dream.  He will have to take that first step.  “Living” is a tender film presented with the utmost care through every gorgeous frame, pitch-perfect performances, and a hope that small victories make meaningful, eloquent differences.  

Indeed, London is alive.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Oliver Hermanus

Written by: Kazuo Ishiguro, based on Akira Kurosawa’s original screenplay

Starring: Bill Nighy, Alex Sharp, Aimee Lou Wood, Adrian Rawlins, Hubert Burton, Michael Cochrane, Oliver Chris, Anant Varman, Richard Cunningham, and Patsy Ferran

Runtime: 97 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Image credits: Lionsgate UK

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