The mesmerising and devastatingly touching Living makes its world premiere at Sundance with project serving as a beautifully pitched reimaging of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru. Director Oliver Hermanus (Beauty, Moffie) layers the film with an authentically crafted poignancy and humanism with Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro successfully transporting the story to post-war London.
Bill Nighy leads Living as Mr Williams working as a cog in the post-war machine of civil service bureaucracy of the early 1950s. Effective in his paper-pushing role, quiet and unassuming and routinely fantasising about his comparatively vibrant past, Mr Williams is hit with the devastating news of a terminal illness. Concealing his condition from his grown son, the widower soon embarks on a night of cutting loose abandoning his work for a day at the Brighton seaside. A blossoming friendship with Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) inspires Mr Williams to find meaning in his remaining days, resurrecting a forgotten project to turn a sewage-filled bomb site into a playpark.
Opening by transporting us to the stiffness of fifties London, a near sepia-style visual palette is lit up by a multitude of red busses and masses of bowler-hat clad men looking like a LS Lowry painting. Bold white titles and a sweeping orchestral score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch craft an elegant timelessness evoking classics from the fifties British cinematic history. Equally integral in crafting these authentic period details is production designer Helen Scott who crafts the dark wood-panelled smoky office interiors and bright nostalgic British seaside holiday nostalgia of the Brighton pier. Further rich details are added through Sandy Powell’s captivating and transporting costume designs, which brim with the history and details of the period.
Living captures the hierarchies of office bureaucracy from its earliest moments, as green new employee Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp) is quickly informed that it is an unwritten rule not to have too much fun and laughter. Stiff interactions between Mr Williams and his junior colleagues on the work commute precede the quiet mundane routines in their civil government office with the shifting of documents from one faceless department to another, while director Oliver Hermanus gives a sense of the banality obscuring shots with mountains of paperwork and brown folders. Establishing the formality of this environment is integral in capturing the journey experienced by Mr Williams who after his diagnosis, chooses to abandon his work without announcement.
Hermanus spends time focussing on Mr Williams absorbing the news of his diagnosis – attempting to find the nerve to tell his son, our protagonist reminisces of a more vibrant time in his past as a photo of his departed wife watches on: black and white scenes of cricket games and nights socialising turn into colour as Williams contemplates times gone by. There is a profound joyousness in watch the bureaucrat rebuild a sense of joie de vivre starting with a day in Brighton’s seaside resort where he is escorted through a cavalcade of light debauchery and fun by a bohemian writer (an excellently exuberant Tom Burke). Yet poignancy is never far from hand with even these more unrestrained scenes packing a delicate emotional elegance as Williams begins a rendition of emotional Scots folk song Oh Rowan Tree examining the passage of seasons and time echoing his own season closing.
Nighy packs a rich expression into the role of Mr Williams in what can only be described as the defining performance of his career. The actor packs a delicate humanism into his facial expressions and line delivery as he begins to rediscover his appetite for life. The sense of relief gained by Williams is beautifully pitched by Nighy in his scenes with Aimee Lou Wood’s Miss Harris, whose positive outlook inspires him to instil his remaining days with a sense of meaning. There is a heart-warming and beautifully pitched emotional quality in seeing Williams slowly drop his formal barriers with scenes including trips to the amusement arcade to tackle its claw machine or cinema trips serving as enthusiastic reminders of a returning sense of joy and passion in his life.
Escaping tears is nigh impossible in Living’s final act exploring Williams’ stoic passion in utilising his bureaucratic role for good in the building of a local park. Utterly poignant snow-set moments in the film’s final moments serve as an elegant showcase of the fusion of Nighy’s rich performance, Hermanus’s emotionally delicate direction, and Ishiguro’s profoundly human narrative. Living is a masterpiece.
Living is an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. More details can be found here.