Sundance 2022: “Living”
To take on a remake of the 1952 Akira Kurosawa masterpiece “Ikiru” is a Herculean task. There is no reason to remake such a beloved film. Director Oliver Hermanus’ latest film “Living” does just that.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro adapted Kurosawa’s original screenplay and has brought it to 1950’s England.
Bill Nighy stars as Mr. Williams, a quiet and lonely man who is in a prison of grief, as he is a widower. He is afflicted with a terminal sickness and his doctor has given him less than a year to live. Taking stock of his life, he searches for meaning within it, something he hasn’t felt since he was young.
The great news is Bill Nighy gives a deeply moving performance that could be his finest yet. Nighy is an actor with dignity. In Mr. Williams, the actor finds the right role to match his understated acting style. He speaks in a whisper that seems at first distant but, as the film goes on, becomes deeper and more reflective.
After a sloppy montage of a night of hedonism with a man he just met, Williams becomes platonically drawn to younger underling Margaret(Aimee Lou Wood in a compassionate performance). The dying man stuck in his dull job is intoxicated by Margaret’s ability to leave the dreadful office and start a new life adventure. Their scenes together have an honesty that is refreshing and reveal the essence of Nighy’s character.
Ishiguro crafts these moments with great respect to the characters and to Kurosawa’s original. It is in the dialogue (and on the face of Bill Nighy) where we experience the awakening of the fear and regret and eventual desire for a profound final act. His screenplays are always rich in the deeper aspects of their characters and this film is certainly no exception.
The writer rids the text of the beautiful voiceover from Kurosawa’s original and loses the local mobsters that lead character Watanabe found the courage to face down. Setting it in postwar London, this film takes a more redemptive and uplifting approach. In this version, people find love and courage. Gone too is the deeper pain felt by the lead character. Watanabe struggled hard to find meaning to his existence as an adult. Williams has those moments but finds his inner happiness in too hurried a manner. Sadly, this hurts the text.
The film commits the cardinal sin of not allowing the audience in on the conversation. There are moments where Williams interacts with different people in his life and while we are privy to much of what he talks about with them, Hermanus too often cuts to scenes of walking and talking but the music overtakes the moment. Williams is dying. He has a lot to say. With a character this interesting and especially with what the film has to say about him, it is imperative that the audience is allowed to hear every thought.
Hermanus achieves a good visual style through his old-fashioned filmmaking. Working with cinematographer Jamie Ramsey, the film captures the stoicism and stuffiness of the old English society of the 1950s. The architecture (both interior and exterior) is beautiful, and the sense of time and place is strong.
At less than two hours, the film serves as a too-abridged version of the story. Hermanus fails to take the time to slowly unravel the layers of Williams. Moments come and go too quickly, keeping the emotions at a distance, never actually allowing the audience to become fully immersed in this man’s final journey.
Somewhat anchored by the brilliance of Bill Nighy’s award-worthy performance as Williams, “Living” goes down too easy, goes by too quickly, and ultimately exists as a noble gesture.
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, based on “Ikiru” by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp
NR, 102 Minutes, Film 4, Filmgate Films