Good remakes are very hard to come by. Usually, a film doesn’t deserve to be modernised or updated. Some manage to be as good if not better than their counterpart, but these are very few and far between. Now we have Living, a remake of the classic 1952 film Ikiru, directed by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. This tale of a gentleman who discovers his fate is not long to go is a poignant and moving tale that could easily be over-sentimentalised. However, this film is beautiful to watch and experience and includes a career-best performance from a much-loved actor.
Mr Williams is an unassuming gentleman who works for the London City Council in a cramped, dark office, dealing with complaints and ideas submitted by the public. One is a park for a wasteland, which has been passed from office to office and back again. Williams is a man who lives for routine and nothing. He discovers he has a terminal illness and starts everything around him. This includes Miss Harris, a young woman who works in his office and who he finds has the life he wants to live.
This is a film oozing with class, from the look, the script, the music, the costumes and the story. It is almost impossible to pinpoint a fault. South African director Oliver Hermanus captures London in the 50s with a careful eye for detail. The opening scenes in which the train into London is full of bowler-hatted city gents have that sense of symmetry. The idea of black spots moving across a railway bridge is a delicious start. We then get the mundane life of working for the council, which gets passed down from one department to another without anyone noticing until Mr Williams places it in his tray with the comment, “We can keep it here. It can do no harm.”
The script, by Booker prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote The Remains of the Day and Never Let Her Go, is like listening to poetry, although this is also a film about silences as much as it is words. The actors convey reactions and thoughts brilliantly and don’t need a single piece of dialogue. The prestige of this production is helped by the beautiful costumes by Sandy Powell and the excellent atmospheric score by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, which graces us with a mood for the period.
As the story builds slowly, it never drags. We witness the man who decides that life needs to be lived to the full, skipping work and heading to the coast, where he meets a young man who shows him a day of heavy drinking and a life of partying in the local pubs, where one of the film’s most touching scenes occurs, when Williams, in a drunken state, sings a Scottish song that brings on memories of his past. Grab that hankie!
Yet, a film dealing with such a moving and sad tale is surprisingly life-affirming. The relationship Williams built with Miss Harris is full of innocence, even if a local spy on them having lunch and gets the wrong idea. Yet this isn’t what the film is about. It’s about taking every chance you can with life. It’s far too short to walk through doing the same thing over and over again. It’s about allowing others to enjoy their lives and giving opportunities to those who might never have them.
As with everything in this film, the performances are terrific, all underplayed and believable. Alex Sharp is good as the naive new worker, Wakeling, while Tom Burke makes a nice cameo appearance as the writer who shows Williams his first night of fun. At the core are the chalk-and-cheese performances from the two leads, Aimee Lou Wood and the brilliant Bill Nighy. Wood, better known for her role in the TV show Sex Education, is a revelation. As Miss Harris, she brings a bubbly, caring performance that never becomes irritating and is tender and sweet. Even when she thinks their relationship may go wrong, you can tell she cares for this gentleman. She is an actress to watch in the future.
However, this is Bill Nighy at his very best. It’s as if he was born to play this character. Quiet, almost to the point of invisibility, he commands each scene with a stillness that we have never seen before. This couldn’t be more different when you think of Bill Nighy’s performance from Love Actually. A raised eyebrow is enough to tell us about this man and the world he frequents. It’s also incredibly heartbreaking. With the likes of Autin Butler from Elvis and Colin Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin, this year’s actor of the year is going to be a hard fight.
Living might not be for those who like their films with fast editing and quick storytelling, but for those who want to see a slice of class, you could do no worst. A remake that equals the original is the best compliment a film can get. One of the films of the year.
5 out of 5
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke, Adrian Rawlins, Lia Williams, Zoe Boyle, Hubert Burton, Oliver Chris
Written by: Kazuo Ishiguro (based on the film Ikiru) Akira Kurosawa
Running Time: 102 mins
Release date: 4th November 2022