British film Living cuts through red tape with standout performances
There are some films that have grand ideas, ones whose purpose is point out things that need to change in order to make the world a fairer and more just place. And then there are ones whose scope appears smaller, taking place in an area that seemingly only matters to a select few, and yet speaking a truth that makes them universal.
Livingis such a film. Based on the Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru and written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the movie is set in 1953 London and centers mostly on Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), a stodgy, by-the-books supervisor in the Public Works department of the London County Council. His department, which includes new employee Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) and Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), is one in a never-ending line of heavily bureaucratic groups, where nothing actually seems to get done.
But when Williams receives a dire health diagnosis, he starts to take stock of his life. Soon, the rigidly on-time man is not showing up to work at all, attempting to find meaning in places he’s rarely explored. This leads him down several unexpected roads, including a night on the town with a man he’s just met, chaste meetings with Miss Harris, and a determination to make his final days count.
Directed by Oliver Hermanus, the film takes a winding path instead of a more direct one. Williams is the main character, but the film doesn’t start with him, introducing most of the side characters before ever getting to him. This subtle choice is the first of many in which the filmmakers subvert expectations about man going through a crisis. The lesson remains the same, but the means to the end feels significantly different.
For instance, much of the first 30 minutes of the film is spent not with Williams, but with Wakeling as he is tasked with escorting a group of women who are trying to get a playground built in their neighborhood. Each successive department in the building pawns them off on another department until they are back at Public Works again, a glimpse at how deep the bureaucracy of the county government goes.
This fun-but-seemingly-innocuous sequence pays big dividends by the end of the film, telling viewers everything they need to know about Williams, Wakeling, and their chosen profession without getting bogged down in exposition. Hermanus is equally sparing in the rest of the film, revealing only enough information to get the point across and not much more.
In this way, he’s mirroring the prim and proper demeanor of his characters. All the men try to maintain the proverbial stiff upper lip and a “uniform” of three-piece suits and bowler hats dominate the workforce. When confronted with things that threaten the status quo, it stirs up relatively strong feelings in the men around Williams, who are used to things being just so.
The part of Williams is about as buttoned-down a starring role as there could be, but Nighy still impresses mightily in it. Playing someone reserved is just as – if not more – difficult as playing someone flashy, and there’s never a moment where Nighy feels anything less than perfectly suited for the role. Sharp and Wood are given the most screentime apart from Nighy, and each complement him and the story extremely well.
Living is a period piece through-and-through, but it has a resonance to it that keeps it relevant for today’s world. With atypical storytelling and a standout performance by Nighy, it’s a deceptively simple film that surprises with its depth.
Living opens in select theaters on January 13.