Concluding Oscar catch-up: Living is a precise and compassionate reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama Ikiru — one of his less typical masterpieces, away from samurai or Shakespeare or noir. Both films tell the story of a bureaucrat, stricken with stomach cancer, who finds it in himself to cut through the red tape and leave something behind. Living is set around the same time as Ikiru was first released, which makes it a period piece where Ikiru wasn’t. Both films unfold less than a decade after World War II, and each society — Living takes place in 1953 London — deals in ways large and small with the lingering shock and horror of the war. In a place that has been bombed near to oblivion, what difference does one playground make?

One act, one word, of kindness, it is said, can make an immeasurable difference. The bureaucrats in this story — inspired by a Tolstoy novella — take the news of their impending deaths with a kind of numb stoicism. In Ikiru, there’s a startling moment when the protagonist exits his doctor’s office and steps out onto the sidewalk; all noise disappears from the soundtrack, until a truck comes roaring into the frame. There’s nothing quite like that in Living, which has been directed by Oliver Hermanus with a subtlety bordering on blandness. Hermanus may have figured, “I’m not even going to try to out-direct Kurosawa.” So, although gracefully lighted (by Jamie D. Ramsay), the film screens in the boxy old Academy ratio. The movie almost apologizes for itself by way of its modest scale and style.

Bill Nighy, as this film’s new dying bureaucrat Mr. Williams, doesn’t have that neurosis, it seems. He doesn’t see himself as being in competition with Takashi Shimura, who played Kurosawa’s fool turned hero; Nighy came up in the theater, where if you think too much about the greats who once sparkled in the role you’re currently playing, you go nuts. So he just approaches Mr. Williams as a man whose juice was squeezed out many years ago, and whose dire diagnosis gives him license to shake the tree a little. But just a little. At first, Mr. Williams contemplates ending himself before the cancer does; then he spends a night out with a guy he’s just met, drinking and singing. In the cold light of day, he realizes that a trio of ladies who’ve been bouncing off the bureaucracy in hopes of getting a playground built point down a more difficult but rewarding path. 

Adapting Ikiru, one of his all-time favorites, Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t give Mr. Williams too much of an obvious Scrooge arc. Pre-diagnosis, Mr. Williams isn’t particularly unpleasant or domineering, just, as one of his underlings says, “frosty.” And he only thaws maybe a couple of degrees. I imagine some of the people who deal with him once he starts taking the playground seriously might find him prickly, but the fact that his demeanor doesn’t change much adds layers to the performance. Mr. Williams is using his polite but iron imperviousness to get something done instead of to stonewall something getting done. His actions change radically, but he’s still the same dyspeptic geezer nicknamed by his young former worker Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) as “Mr. Zombie.”

Nighy fills out a hollow man who begins the movie in general sadness, is given something to be really sad about, and takes it as an impetus to run counter to his entire career. But the sadness remains, and persists. So do we. It’s a very Kurosawa concern, and Ishiguro honors it: life is just people navigating their private sadness. No exceptions. No one here gets out alive. Ikiru is tough stuff in the Kurosawa mold because it’s bracingly wise about human frailty; so is Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day), though in a different mode. Kurosawa was much more acerbic, even withering, about the salaryman ethos of the bureaucracy. His office drones would turn you down gruffly. The ones in Living hem and haw and smile politely, but it comes to the same. The new movie doesn’t have any real malice towards the city-hall blockers. They’re all part of the same sad system, and the only one who can short-circuit it for a little while is going to die soon. 

Explore posts in the same categories: drama, remake

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: