Society functions to a degree because most people don’t know when their lives will end. Having a sense of how much time someone has left in the world can affect their behavior entirely and inspire them to make decisions that are not at all in line with how they typically operate. It can also lead to a deep introspection, one that forces someone who has never before had to face mortality to take stock of what they have done throughout their years and the mark they will leave on the world when they are gone. Living offers a poignant portrait of one man’s late-stage soul-searching journey.
After World War II, Williams (Bill Nighy) works as a loyal civil servant in a government office, too accustomed to the monotony of his job to truly accomplish anything. When he receives a terminal diagnosis from his doctor, Williams is unsure of how to react. Rather than confide in his closest relative, his son, Williams contemplates all that he has done throughout his career and turns instead to a stranger, Sutherland (Tom Burke), and a young woman in his office, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), who makes him believe he may actually able to do something of importance with the little time he has left.
This film is a remake of the classic 1952 film Ikiru from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, adapted to a British setting with a screenplay from novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. The style of Living firmly grounds it within the time period in which it takes place, yet its story is a universal one that should be relevant to anyone who has been given the chance, however late in life or near the end, to truly consider how their actions have affected others and how they would like to change, even if their legacy is not impacted or known by anyone.
Director Oliver Hermanus’ previous film, Moffie, sought to get to know its main character, a gay soldier in 1980s South Africa, intimately in the context of a greater community where his identity was seen as objectionable and unacceptable. This film takes a more personal approach to its protagonist, lingering on Williams as he ponders his most potent memories and the things he has does over the course of his life to stand out and be remembered. Learning from Margaret that he is perceived as a zombie of sorts only serves to send him further into prolonged introspection.
Nighy is a terrific actor equally capable of drama and comedy. This role relies heavily on the former, reminiscent of his recent turns in films like Hope Gap and The Bookshop. His facial expressions do most of the talking, but audiences are also treated to Nighy’s singing, which is a sincere improvement on his purposely humorous “Christmas Is All Around” from Love Actually. There is a genuine, raw roughness to the way in which he sings, and it comes across as very emotional and haunting.
Nighy is joined by an exceptional costar in Wood, a remarkable young actress with few credits who is best known for Sex Education. She is able to navigate the line between romantic interest and trusted confidante, accomplishing that wonderfully and serving as a sounding board and dialogue partner to process Williams’ feelings. The cast also includes Alex Sharp and Tom Burke, whose film The Souvenir has a similar pace to this one. Living is a pensive experience, one that really seeks to understand how a person interacts with the world and slows down to fully appreciate the way in which an impending ending can offer unprecedented perspective.
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Living makes its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.