Living review: Bill Nighy delivers an almost startling transformation in this beautiful period drama

In a performance tipped for Oscar attention, the British actor sheds his trademark, twinkling charisma like snakeskin

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 02 November 2022 16:41 GMT
Living trailer

Dir: Oliver Hermanus. Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke. 12A, 102 minutes.

Ikiru, in its plaintive modernity, may not be the most widely recognisable of Akira Kurosawa’s films. It can’t be slotted so neatly beside the savage violence and heroic ideals of his historical films, Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) or Ran (1985). But the 1952 drama’s message, that a worthy legacy can be built from the tiniest and most fleeting of things, has endured. It’s encapsulated in the single image of a dying bureaucrat (played by Takashi Shimura) singing to himself as he sits on the swingset of the playground he helped build. Decades later, it’s an image that’s been reframed but barely rethought by South African director Oliver Hermanus, Nobel Prize-winning screenwriter Ishiguro Kazuo and actor Bill Nighy with Living. But, like the bureaucrat’s cherished swingset, that vague feeling of inconsequence shouldn’t make much difference. What does it matter if a film isn’t necessarily built to last? Living still has its compelling beauty.

Hermanus’s film is set in the Fifties, making it a period piece rather than a contemporary portrait as Ikiru was. It also takes place halfway around the world in London. Nighy’s bureaucrat, Mr Williams, is dying of stomach cancer. He’s spent the majority of his life in the same job at London County Hall, its monotony as constant as the piles of paperwork that pen him into his desk. It’s a necessary bit of mess, his young employee Ms Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) warns him, since without them “people suspect you of not having anything very important to do”.

Following his diagnosis, Mr Williams seeks existential comfort not from his own son, who he insists “has his own life”, but from a Brighton louche (Tom Burke) and the cheery Ms Harris. He invites the latter out to the movies and then for a drink, while confessing that he doesn’t feel able to go home (read: be alone) quite yet. She worries he’s developed a strange infatuation. But in reality, Mr Williams seems convinced that proximity to youth might be able to stave off his own mortality. “I have no special quality,” Ms Harris insists. He will have to seek meaning elsewhere.

Much of the artfulness of Living does, in part, feel borrowed from Ikiru. Here the chaotic symphony of city life is rendered not through car horns but the steady beat of commuter footsteps, surging back and forth along the same daily paths. Those towering paper stacks slice through frames, isolating its characters, who are sometimes made to look as small and crushable as ants. Hermanus ruminates on these images a little more than Kurosawa might. He already knows their power, and allows cinematographer Jamie D Ramsay to bathe them in a soft, milky light.

Crucially, we are not told of Mr Williams’s condition up front, as Ikiru does through its introductory narration. Instead, we’re introduced to him through the eyes of Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp), a new hire at the office – specifically, in a shot of Mr Williams as seen through a train window, appropriately framed by a circle of morning frost. Nighy, too, has shed his trademark, twinkling charisma like snakeskin. What lies beneath is something almost spectral in its stillness, a man already half-dead and certainly deserving of Ms Harris’s secret nickname of “Mr Zombie”. It’s an almost startling transformation for the actor, a standout performance of an already much-lauded career. His contributions help guide Living on its muted but no less emotive journey to that singular image of a man, renewed, alone on a swingset. Hermanus is more than happy for his film to live in the shadows of Kurosawa’s. There’s still much to savour.

‘Living’ is in cinemas from 4 November

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