Review: Bill Nighy is Heartbreakingly Perfect in “Living”

Unpretentious and gentle, Oliver Hermanus’ Living may not seem like much, but a pitch-perfect performance from Bill Nighy lifts the film beyond its potential.

Nighy stars as Mr. Williams, a humorless bureaucrat working in the Public Works in 1953 London. His days are filled with routine and monotony. Despite a long career, the Public Works office often reaches no achievements. When a group of ladies desire to turn a local cesspool into a park, they are given the usual runaround.

During a routine doctor’s visit, Mr. Williams receives a terminal diagnosis. Realizing his limited remaining time, Mr. Williams begins skipping work and experiencing things outside his daily regimen. He randomly meets a man named Sutherland (Tom Burke), who takes him through a tour of London’s seedier nightlife. He also connects with a former co-worker Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood). As the days continue and he keeps his prognosis to himself, Williams wonders if he could actually do some good in the world before he passes on.

This is the type of film we have seen a hundred times. In fact, this film is a direct remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru from 1952. The big difference here is the atmosphere the central character creates with his change in attitudes. This story generally creates a noticeable ripple effect in the lives of those around them. In the case of Williams, his change initially is only about himself. He doesn’t change much about his own personality, just with renewed purpose. Instead of dwelling on his wasted time, Williams wants to utilize the time he has remaining.

That’s what makes this story different. The change in Williams’ attitudes is not one of learning to “live” before he dies, but one of action that can transcend his physical body. He realizes he is in the rare position to help people. His spirit is one where he refuses to let the slow-moving government barriers stand in the way of actual progress. It might be seen as a small gesture, but it is one that will cement his legacy, regardless of if he is remembered for it.

It’s all about Nighy in this film. His character is given reverence and dignity, where his initial scenes are filled with slow and whispery dialogue. Once his diagnosis is given, he doesn’t explode with energy and vibrancy, but maintains his persona with added presence. “The scene” of the film features a drunk Williams singing an English song in a crowded pub. Nighy begins with the subtle shyness, but eventually breaks into emotional power. It’s a show-stopping scene, which is lightly retconned at the film’s conclusion. It’s a stunning performance from a veteran of great acting.

Wood gets to play the audience surrogate for William’s transformation while maintaining her 1950’s sensibilities. Yes, she is rooting for Williams to break out of his mold, but she is also keenly aware of what people may think of their occasional meetings. Burke is likewise willing to show Williams a good time, but eventually reaches a point of worrying for him. Each cast member rightly treats Nighy like the treasure he is. The respect given to the actor makes the respect to the character that much more effective.

The craft aspects are equally impeccable. Between Helen Scott’s deft production design and Oscar-winner Sandy Powell’s perfectly tailored costumes, there is never a moment that doesn’t feel keenly retro and entrenched. Cinematographer James Ramsey keeps things relatively simple until he gets the chance to show off in the film’s second half. Some scenes in the pouring rain and dark snow are some of the most beautiful shots of the year.

Quietly affirming and featuring a perfect Bill Nighy performance, Living was a real surprise. It might be gentle and expected, but that didn’t make it any less wonderful.

Living is now playing in select theaters
Score: 4.0/5.0

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