Producers: Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen Director: Oliver Hermanus Screenplay: Kazuo Ishiguro Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke, Adrian Rawlins, Oliver Chris, Hubert Burton, Zoe Boyle, Barney Fishwick, Patsy Ferran, Jessica Flood, Nicola McAuliffe, Michael Cochrane and Lia Williams Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
It’s always dangerous to remake a classic film, but this English-language revisiting of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” is largely an admirable effort, due not so much to Oliver Hermanus’ careful direction or the respectful screenplay by noted novelist Kazuo Ishiguro as to the impeccable lead performance of Bill Nighy. He’s long been an actor whose mere presence could lift even mediocre material, and this is one of his finest accomplishments, a fastidiously underplayed turn that might remind you a bit of Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner.
Nighy’s emotionless Mr. Williams is like the walking dead—one of his co-workers has nicknamed him Mr. Zombie—even before he receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He’s a government bureaucrat heading an office in the Department of Public Works in the early 1950s, where he and his sedentary staff spend most of their time pushing papers from one box on their desks to another, accomplishing next to nothing. A widower who lives with his distant son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran), who’s unhappy with the arrangement, he follows the same routine every day, commuting to the office in his well-pressed suit, his polished shoes and his bowler hat, umbrella always to hand, filling the working hours with little talk or human connection, and returning home to a bleakly uneventful evening. Of his underlings, Rusbridger (Hubert Burton), Middleton (Adrian Rawlins) and Hart (Oliver Chris) are as hidebound as he; only newcomer Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) wants to accomplish something—anything—while free-spirited Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), who has coined Williams’ unflattering nickname, is looking for a job elsewhere.
After receiving the bad news about his health, Williams is unable to tell his son of his condition, instead confounding his staff by simply not coming in to work. Instead, contemplating suicide, he escapes to a shabby seaside resort, where he abruptly confides his plan to a chatty local rake named Sutherland (Tom Burke), who insists on taking him out for a night on the town, or at least its low-rent fringes. Williams forlornly gives himself over to the supposed pleasures of the place, even mournfully singing a song in a club as memories overtake him, but after his return to London his intention is to resume his ordinary life as best he can.
At least that’s the case until he encounters Miss Harris, who has in fact left the office to take a job as a waitress in hopes of becoming a tea restaurant manager, and impetuously invites her to lunch and a movie—“I Was a Male Bride” with Cary Grant, no less. Her bubbly personality convinces him to accomplish one real project in his last days—the construction of a small playground promoted by a quartet of determined ladies (Zoe Boyle, Lia Williams, Jessica Flood and Nicola MaAuliffe), which he pushes forward with dedication that floors his staff, his departmental colleagues and the minister (Michael Cochrane) that oversees them all.
“Living” is tighter than “Ikiru,” coming in as edited by Chris Wyatt at under two hours where Kurosawa’s take was thirty minutes longer, even though it adds a romantic subplot for Harris and Wakeling and is faithful to its source in virtually every particular, down to the famous shot of the protagonist on a playground swing and the ironic twist involving his subordinates’ vow to follow his late-in-life example of commitment to doing good. It mimics the look and feel of films from the fifties as well, from the retro titles through the Helen Scott’s colorful production design, Sandy Powell’s on-point costumes, and Jamie D. Ramsay’s unfussy but elegant cinematography. Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s score fits the mold, too.
The cast is overall fine, with Sharp and Wood nicely contrasted to the officious trio of Burton, Rawlins and Chris and the far from familial Fishwick and Ferran. Burke is charismatic even if Sutherland isn’t the most credible character in the world.
But it’s Nighy who sells what might, after all, have easily descended into sentimental mawkishness. Suppressing his frequent penchant for flamboyant eccentricity, he calculates every tic, pause and nervous smile for optimal effect, exuding Williams’ faded gentility as well as his determined energy in the face of escalating pain.
Thanks to Nighy’s flawlessly gauged performance, the gamble of reimagining Kurosawa’s film in British terms turns out handsomely in all respects.