Remember back last summer when Anthony Fabian’s “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” was released? We all thought, (a) “Why don’t they make more movies like this?” and (b) “Why hasn’t Leslie Manville had a starring role before?” I still wonder the answers to those questions – particularly after suffering through Damien Chazelle’s recent bomb “Babylon” – but now I wonder the same in relation to Oliver Hermanus’ new film “Living.” While “Living” isn’t quite the feel-good movie “Mrs. Harris” was, it’s certainly uplifting, and it makes one wonder why character actor Bill Nighy has just now landed a starring role. Heck, even Harry Dean Stanton scored two leading man performances in his 91 years.
So veteran actor Bill Nighy finally works for something greater than “scale” in Hermanus’ new adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 picture “Ikiru,” with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. Nighy plays the widowed Mr. Williams, longtime head of a mid-level bureaucracy unit of the London Dept. of Public Works. Williams’ and his underlings’ modus operandi would appear to be to somehow shelve every request for zoning variances until the petitioners lose interest. He keeps a traditionally British stiff upper lip, rarely proffering any hint of small talk or personal biographical material to those with whom he shares his long, predictable, mundane days.
His department is comprised of four other functionaries, including newcomer Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp, who played activist Rennie Davis in “The Trial of the Chicago 7”), through whose eyes we view Mr. Williams and the department. The other Public Works civil servant unjaded by years of monotony is Margaret Harris, played by Aimee Lou Wood – who has her eye on an assistant manager position at a local restaurant. Mr. Williams lives with his son Michael and his wife Fiona (Barney Fishwick and Patsy Ferran), but Williams and his son have a “hands-off” relationship. It’s not strained, necessarily, but suffice to say they don’t share a lot.
Mr. Williams receives an unfortunate terminal cancer diagnosis, which causes him to rethink his life – or, more specifically, his lack of life. It finally dawns on Williams that he has nothing to show for his years of public service. What has he accomplished? What public works projects has he approved that make him proud?
In one of “Living’s” saddest scenes, Williams approaches a young man in a diner and explains his situation. He asserts that he’d like to have a little fun during his remaining time… But he simply doesn’t know how. The stranger then takes Mr. Williams out for an evening of bar hopping. And while Nighy’s stiff upper-lip routine is amusing during this night of “fun,” this sequence invokes a certain element of sadness, in that we realize he should have done this years earlier.
Mr. Williams also begins to take out Margaret to nice restaurants and even the movies – all the while he continues to refer to her as “Miss Harris.” This awkward social pairing doesn’t go unnoticed by some of Mr. Williams’ neighbors and acquaintances. Fortunately, Hermanus and Ishiguro are smart enough to keep this relationship on a purely platonic level.
Mr. Williams life changes – about as much can be expected from a mid-level British bureaucrat in 1953 – and the joy of “Living” comes from watching Nighy play out this life alteration. Again, it’s not quite on the jovial level of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” – or even the new Tom Hanks film, “A Man Called Otto” – but it is a thrill to watch a somewhat contemptuous man let his proverbial hair down a tad.
Outside shot at Oscar
Nighy plays the role brilliantly, and has earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination, as has screenwriter Ishiguro for his adapted screenplay. Aimee Lou Wood is also strong as Margaret – a young woman who, by all appearances, is “normal,” although full of youthful exuberance to the stodgy Mr. Williams.
“Living” is not as strong a film as “Mrs. Harris,” but it’s certainly inspiring and fun to watch, if nothing else for Nighy’s performance. I’ll be curious to see if Nighy astonishes everyone by beating Brendan Fraser in the Best Actor category. I can’t imagine he will, but surprises always occur on Oscar night.
Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/.