‘Living’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

The Kazuo Ishiguro-scripted remake of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ stars Bill Nighy as a British civil servant who searches for meaning after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Remakes frequently face a double-edged sword: If a movie is beloved enough to warrant making again, there’s a decent chance it’s also beloved enough to cast a shadow so long that even a perfectly nice re-do might struggle to escape it.

Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru, is not the exception. Considered alone, it’s a sturdy and thoughtful drama, anchored by a moving lead performance from Bill Nighy and elevated by a handsome sense of style. But it can’t live up to the comparison it invites simply by existing, let alone transcend it altogether.


The Bottom Line

A touching but not exactly essential remake of a classic.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Screenwriter: Kazuo Ishiguro, based on the film Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa

1 hour 42 minutes

Directed by Oliver Hermanus (last year’s Moffie) and written by Kazuo Ishiguro, Living moves the story from 1950s Tokyo to 1950s London, but otherwise retains the same basic plot, themes and structure. Mr. Williams (Nighy) has been a bureaucrat in the Public Works office for decades. He spends his days shuffling papers with such empty, joyless consistency that his office nickname is “Mr. Zombie,” and goes home at night to make polite non-conversation with a son (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran) who tolerate him more than love him.

What finally jolts him out of his deadening routine is the imminence of actual death. Informed by his doctor that he has only six months left to live, he grasps for some way to make his limited time count — by losing himself in hedonistic pleasures with the help of a hard-drinking but generous stranger (Tom Burke), by attaching himself to an upbeat younger colleague (Aimee Lou Wood), and ultimately by finding purpose in a minor but meaningful public works project.

Like so many other Ishiguro protagonists — including those from his novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, both of which were also turned into brilliant films — Williams initially seems to exist to be overlooked. He’s defined not by some essential spirit but by his lack of one, and is better at biting back his words than eking them out. At times, the camera itself barely seems to notice him: When Williams visits the doctor to receive his diagnosis, what we see first are close-ups of two women casually chattering about holiday travel. It’s only after a few beats that the angle widens to reveal Williams has been waiting quietly across the room the whole time.

Nighy shrinks his typically vivid presence until even his spare frame feels too expansive for Williams’ meager personality. As Williams warms to life, Nighy projects a gentle glow rather than a roaring fire. Those around him may act a bit more assertively, but they hardly make more of an impression. His coworkers at the government office, including well-meaning newcomer Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp), are dwarfed by the piles of paperwork around them — purposely kept high lest “people suspect you of not having anything very important to do,” as Wood’s Miss Harris slyly notes.

The sense of repression is heightened by the film’s self-consciously old-fashioned look, which asserts itself from the opening credits — the grainy texture and elegant score mimic midcentury films so effectively that you might wonder for a moment if you’ve stepped into the wrong theater, or clicked on the wrong title. The predominating tone of Living is one of dignified restraint, in Mr. Williams’ case to the point of self-erasure. In a gut-wrenching detail, on the rare occasions that Williams works up the courage to reveal his diagnosis with someone, he still can’t help prefacing it with “It’s rather a bore, but …”

As Mr. Williams strains to find meaning in his final days, Living moves from a devastating portrait of a life wasted to an inspirational one of a life reclaimed — and then promptly complicates it with a bracing dose of reality, in the form of conversation among his colleagues about Williams’ tenuous legacy. It’s a shrewd move that turns Living from a sentimental fable to a cautionary tale, and it leaves us with more to chew on than if we’d been allowed to just end with Williams’ small but hard-won victory.

But it’s also a trick that’s been done before. While Williams spends his time haunted by his dwindling future, Living is dogged by a long past. It’s obviously distinct from Ikiru. Ishiguro has made changes to the script, including a light romantic subplot for the female lead. Hermanus’ tasteful colors and crisp lines could never be mistaken for the black-and-white messiness of Kurosawa’s. Nighy stiffens where Takashi Shimura sagged, withdraws where Shimura seemed to break himself open.

What fundamentally works about Living, though, is what worked about Ikiru, minus the surprise of discovery: the poignant premise, the unusual structure, the sardonic observations of office work and the aching compassion for a man barely in touch with his own sense of self. At the end of Living, I felt not like I’d seen an old favorite in a new light, but like I might want to go back and watch Ikiru again. There are worse outcomes for a remake than reviving affection for the original, or retelling an old story for a new audience that may not have heard it before. There are better ones, too.

In the final minutes of Living, Wakeling reads a letter from Williams reflecting on the “modest satisfaction” of making “a small thing” that may not stand the test of time, but nevertheless brings a bit of happiness to others. The original Ikiru did endure; the mere fact that Hermanus and Ishiguro felt compelled to remake it over half a century later is a testament to that. Living, on the other hand, feels more like the kind of accomplishment Williams had in mind: earnest, lovely and nothing quite extraordinary.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Film4,
Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Screenwriter: Kazuo Ishiguro, based on the film Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa
Producers: Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen
Cinematographer: Jamie D. Ramsay
Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Composer: Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch
Casting director: Kathleen Crawford
Sales: Rocket Science

1 hour 42 minutes