“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Auntie Mame
The Queer Palm-winning director of Beauty and last year’s exceptional Moffie, Oliver Hermanus, unveiled his latest feature at Sundance 2022, the poignant and profound, Living. Adapted from the Akira Kurosawa classic Ikiru by Nobel and Booker–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, the film sees the action transposed from 1950s Japan to an early 50s London that’s still reeling from the Second World War. We’re immediately immersed in the period by the stunning archive footage of the West End with beautifully saturated colours that opens the film, before cinematographer Jamie Ramsay (in his fourth collaboration with Hermanus) takes over with a similar grain and palette. Bowler hat wearing gents are engrossed in their broadsheet newspapers as they take the commuter steam train into the city. Among them is recent graduate Peter Wakeling (an excellent Alex Sharp). It’s his first day on the job so he hasn’t yet been institutionalized by the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the public works department at County Hall.
Sitting behind his large desk at the head of Wakeling’s new office is Mr Williams (Bill Nighy), a remote figure who is more feared than revered by his staff, who view him as humorless and uptight. As we follow some of the inner workings of County Hall, we soon see Williams as a medium sized cog in a vast administrative machine. We meet a group of women petitioning for a flooded Blitz bomb site to be turned into a children’s playground. They’ve been passed around from one department to the next, eventually being sent back to public works. We get the sense that such evasion and neglect is routine business at County Hall. The women’s vision for the park and their determination to see it realized as they continually bump up against regulatory hurdles isn’t only heartening, but emblematic of the city’s need to heal its emotional and physical scars, while looking optimistically to the next generation. For Williams though, initially at least, it just means more paperwork to be buried in the pile on his desk.
After a day at the office, Williams has a consultation with his doctor and receives the devastating news that he has just months left to live. Nighy’s beautifully calibrated, subtle, and layered performance allows us to see both the stoic, English stiff-upper-lip mask of gentlemanly respectability and the fragile human emotion behind it as he takes in the doctor’s words. A widower, Williams lives with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and his rather contemptuous daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) who describes the atmosphere in the house as “stifling”. One evening, Williams sits alone in the darkness preparing himself to tell them both about his poor health, but they are so eager to avoid spending time with him that he doesn’t have the chance, and the moment passes.
At this stage in his humdrum life, the man we meet is existing rather than truly living, as he faces the question of how to spend the limited time that remains. Unable to find the answer within himself, he gravitates towards those he perceives to be living their lives to the fullest. Firstly, he uncharacteristically skips work and befriends a gregarious playwright (Tom Burke) at a seaside resort, briefly flirting with his hedonistic lifestyle. Out on a bender together, it unexpectedly leads to one of the film’s most touching moments as Williams gets up to sing an old Scottish folk song that has a deep meaning for him and his late wife, The Rowan Tree, about loss and the passing of time. Later, Williams is drawn to a former member of his staff, the buoyant Margaret Harris (a wonderful Aimee Lou Wood from Sex Education), whom he spends an increasing amount of time with as if hoping to imbue her radically contrasting approach to life.
Ishiguro’s screenplay is elegantly spare, with so much expressed by Nighy’s face. We also glimpse inside his mind, as Williams reflects back upon his early life, with flashbacks emerging in black and white then flushing with colour. These sequences contribute to the film’s quiet contemplation of the moments and memories that add up to a life, what we leave behind, and the search for a purpose in having lived at all.
Just as Hermanus brought 1980s South Africa to vivid life with Moffie, so here does he conjure a 50s London that feels authentic to the era but tangible and alive, never a remote period piece. Much like Ed Lachman’s cinematography for Todd Haynes’ Carol, Ramsay brings a painterly beauty to each shot without sacrificing any emotional potency. In fact, every element from Chris Wyatt’s (God’s Own Country, Ammonite, Supernova) editing, to Oscar-winner Sandy Powell’s costumes, Helen Scott’s exquisite production design, and composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s stirring score, come together to form an impeccable work.
Living once again proves Hermanus to be a masterful director, securing his place among the finest filmmakers working today. Nighy’s breathtaking performance, amid a first-rate cast, is integral to the film’s success and he delivers a delicate, unassuming tour-de-force that’s deeply affecting. Shot during the pandemic, the film premieres as the world continues to grapple with the enormous devastation of Covid-19, and thematically Living resonates in these times. Given the premise, one might expect something melancholy, but in spending time with Williams as he faces imminent death, Hermanus has created a beautifully rich, ultimately life-affirming film that feels like an instant classic.
By James Kleinmann
Living received its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for North American theatrical distribution. In the UK it will be distributed by Lionsgate.