December 23, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1959 in England, the dramatic film “Living” (a remake of the 1953 Japanese film “Ikiru”) features an all-white characters representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A terminally ill man has an epiphany and re-evaluates what he wants to do with his life.
Culture Audience: “Living” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of “Irkiru” and people who are interested in watching thoughtful movies about changing one’s own life while preparing for death.
If you had only weeks to live, what would you do? The dramatic film “Living” poses that question, and has a protagonist who answers it. Bill Nighy gives a nuanced performance in this noteworthy British remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic “Ikiru.” The deliberate pacing and contemplative nature of “Living” can be recommended to people who want to see a movie about someone facing mortality. “Living” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and
Directed by Oliver Hermanus and written by Kazuo Ishiguro, “Living” (which takes place in 1959 in an unnamed part of England) begins with the introduction to the four businessman co-workers before they go on a train together to their monotonous office job for a company whose core business is never fully explained. Much of the movie contrasts the rigid, “button-down” environment of this office job and the personal evolution of the movie’s protagonist who tries to break out of the self-imposed rut that he’s been living in for many years.
The movie’s central character is a widower named Mr. Williams (played by Nighy), whose first name is never mentioned. It’s the movie’s way of still giving an air of formality to this character. Through conversations that the four commuter businessmen have in the movie, it’s made clear that Mr. Williams is a high-ranking executive at the company, and he is close to retiring. Mr. Williams is respected but also feared.
The four businessmen who work at the company are newcomer Peter Wakeling (played by Alex Sharp), who is in his 20s and eager to impress his co-workers; Mr. Hart (played by Oliver Chris), who is fairly quiet; Mr. Rusbridger (played by Hubert Burton), who is helpful to Peter; and Mr. Middleton (played by Adrian Rawlins), who is the apparent successor to Mr. Williams after Mr. Williams retires. Peter, Mr. Hart and Mr. Rusbridger are all in the late 20s to early 30s. Mr. Middleton is in his 60s.
The movie’s opening scene shows Peter on a train platform his first day on the job, as Mr. Middleton introduces Peter to Mr. Hart and Mr. Rusbridger. Peter tells an innocuous joke to make small talk. No one in the group laughs at the joke. Mr. Rusbridger advises Peter: “This time of the morning, it’s kind of a rule: Not too much fun and laughter, kind of like church.”
This serious attitude is even more evident in the office environment, where people speak in hushed tones and seem very conscious of following bureaucratic rules. Although the desks in the office are placed closed together, these co-workers seem emotionally distant from each other. The impression they give is that they have to be completely focused on work, and there’s no room and no tolerance for anyone to bring too much of their personal lives (or personalities) to the workplace.
Even if it’s never said out loud, it becomes obvious from Mr. Williams’ leadership style that he was responsible for creating this stuffy culture at this particular office. One day, during a dull meeting in a conference room, Mr. Williams tells his staff that he has to leave early for the day (at about 3:20 p.m.), and he says that Mr. Middleton can be in charge during Mr. Williams’ absence. As soon as the employees hear that Mr. Williams will be leaving early, the relief is noticeable on their faces, as if they know that when he’s gone, they can relax a little in the office.
The appointment that Mr. Williams has to go to is a visit with his physician Dr, Matthews (played by Jonathan Keeble). The doctor does not have good news to tell Mr. Williams. Tests results have come back that are “pretty conclusive,” says the doctor. Although the full details aren’t revealed until later, Mr. Williams has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He has also been told that he only has six to eight months to live. This isn’t spoiler information, since this part of the story is part of the marketing for “Living.”
Mr. Williams keeps this information a secret from almost everyone he knows, including his adult son Michael (played by Barney Fishwick), Michael’s wife Fiona (played by Patsy Ferran) and Mr. Williams’ business colleagues. Michael and Fiona do not have a warm relationship with Mr. Williams. When these two spouses visit him, they (especially Fiona) seem to be more concerned about what kind of inheritance money they can get from Mr. Williams than his general well-being.
The implication is that for much of his life, Mr. Williams has been a cold and judgmental person who is set in his ways. And now that he is faced with the harsh reality of his imminent and painful death, he is seeing the consequences of not developing enough meaningful emotional connections. Michael, his closest living relative, barely tolerates him, which indicates that years of resentment (mostly unspoken) have built up between father and son.
Mr. Williams finds an unexpected bright spot soon after finding out the dark and devastating news about his terminal illness: A perky and talkative woman in her 20s named Margaret Harris (played by Aimee Lou Wood) is someone who used to work as a secretary in the same office as Mr. Williams. Shortly after the movie begins, it’s shown that Margaret has already given notice that she’s quitting to take a job as an assistant manager at a local restaurant called Four Corners.
One day, Mr. Williams invites Margaret to lunch, and they have a polite conversation where he tells her that he can write a letter of recommendation for her in whatever job she wants to have. Over time, after Margaret starts working at Four Corners, he makes a point of going there by himself so that he can talk to her because he’s lonely. They go on a few platonic dates, but Margaret isn’t really sure if Mr. Williams wants more than a friendship when he quickly becomes emotionally attached to her.
Meanwhile, Mr. Williams meets a bon vivant type named Sutherland (played by Tom Burke), who encourages Mr. Williams to loosen up and try things that Mr. Williams has never done before. If “Living” were a formulaic Hollywood movie, this would be the part of the story where Mr. Williams turns into a party animal or goes on wacky adventures, as part of checking off things to do on his “bucket list.” However, the quiet beauty of “Living” is that it doesn’t have those types of cheap gimmicks.
Instead, “Living” is more about the gradual discovery that Mr. Williams has about himself and understanding that even with a limited amount of time he has left to live, it’s never to too late to change. Throughout the movie, there are several flashback clips of Mr. Williams in his childhood. These flashbacks are artfully shown in a “vintage film footage” format. Mr. Williams’ childhood memories inspire the transformation that he has in this story.
“Living” is a movie that will frustrate or bore some viewers who want to see a flashier film with a lot of melodrama. Audiences should know before seeing this film that it’s an introspective character study rather than a story with major plot twists or surprises. Nighy’s performance is understated yet powerful in the way he portrays someone who chooses to suffer in silence but who makes a big statement toward the end of his life. Mostly, the movie does an admirable job of conveying the message behind the title: How someone lives is much more important than how someone dies.
Sony Pictures Classics released “Living” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022.