Sundance 2022

Living review – miraculous remake of a Japanese masterpiece

Bill Nighy gives one of his best performances in this beautiful and emotionally ripe redo of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic Ikiru

Sitting in an elegant restaurant during an afternoon escapade from work, Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) stares across at cheery co-worker Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) in delighted curiosity. The girl, naturally uninhibited, has just unveiled the nickname by which she calls the old man: Mr. Zombie. “They’re sort of dead, but not dead,” she explains, attempting to justify the cheeky epithet. Mr. Williams does not give in to offence, merely labelling the description as “quite appropriate.”

The respected head of the council’s Public Affairs department in 1950s London, Mr. Williams spends his days slowly chewing through the ever-growing pile of requests that towers over his desk. The monotonous quality of the bureaucracy turns days into years, the job chewing up eager workers and spitting out defeated men. Yet, despite the soul-crushing sluggishness of the routine, Mr. Williams returns time and time again. Until he doesn’t.

The continuous pain that nagged at Mr. Williams turns out to be terminal cancer. Dazed by the news, the man disturbs a years-long routine in search of “enjoying himself a little,” from travelling to the seaside – where he meets a writer willing to introduce him to the practicalities of having fun – to spontaneously inviting Miss Harris to regular outings. Through disruption, the council worker begins to swap out the lingering bitterness of the uneventful for the excitement of the unexpected.

A remake of the 1952 film Ikiru, one of Akira Kurosawa’s best works, Living does not risk deviating too much from the original, and yet it somehow avoids the mighty curse of the adaptation: to exist simply for the sake of existing, an empty simulacrum. South African director Oliver Hermanus, working from a script by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, incorporates a sense of British stiffness to amplify the equally unyielding tautness of the system to which Mr. Williams is chained, creating a film that appeals to the particularities of its setting without sacrificing the universality of its central themes.

While it does feature one of Bill Nighy’s finest performances to date – and perhaps the defining work of his late career – Living is very much a showcase for the quickly-rising younger generation of British actors. Although his time here is sadly brief, Tom Burke is intoxicating in a role that plays to all of his strengths, a self-absorbed bohemian writer with sky high ambitions, and Aimee Lou Wood, one of the most charming actresses of this new English crop, is perfectly cast as the bubbly human EpiPen who will shock Mr. Williams back to life.

Impeccably shot and beautifully scored, Living is destined to stand as a recurring answer to the question of whether or not cinema should insist on westernised remakes of beloved foreign films. Rightfully so, since what Hermanus achieves here, at times, feels nothing short of miraculous.

Living was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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