Death and the High Cost of “Living”

movie poster for "Living" showing Bill Nighy standing before a very British building in dapper suit and bowler, holding a cane and checking his watch.

John Steed like you’ve never seen him before!

Remember that time Bill Nighy was in the Pirates of the Caribbean series as the Dread Pirate Cthulhu? If you were a celebrated actor given six months to live, it wasn’t the sort of role that’d rise to the top of your bucket list unless you were desperate to provide for your loved ones, was it? Living, on the other hand, would make a more sensible parting gift to those left behind. Not that Nighy’s dying anytime soon! God forbid. I’m just saying I prefer his natural talents not be hidden behind CG seafood.

Nighy and director Oliver Hermanus (his feature debut outside South Africa) accept a formidable self-dare in remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, which isn’t among the latter’s flashier films (read: 100% samurai-free) but left an impression on me when I saw it a few years ago before I constantly began referring to myself as an old man. I bought the Criterion disc, but streaming fans can find it now on the Criterion Channel and maybe HBO Max for about ten more minutes before it’s yanked away.

For most of its runtime the perfectly capable do-over walks the same path. In the barely postwar 1950s (same era as Ikiru, except that one was contemporaneous and this one’s a period piece) Nighy’s Mr. Williams is a senior bureaucrat in the Public Works office, one of many identically unhelpful gears in a machine perpetually oiled by its own highly organized inefficiency. Insert a reasonable request from an outsider into one department, which declares that it should go to another department, which in turn does the same. Once the request has done a lap around all departments and returned unrequited to Public Works, it’s placed in a specific inbox to linger until it decomposes or England is bombed in the next World War. Repeat until retirement or death. It’s like a middle-management consortium watched Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and thought to themselves, “This is too excitable to be profitable. We can fix that.”

Before all those unseemly Nazis, as a youngster Mr. Williams dreamed of growing up to be “a rank-and-file sort of gentleman” — his exact words — not for any thrills, but for the bespoke suit and bowler, for the dignified demeanor and posture and mature ambiance that state to onlookers, “I have followed society’s rules to the letter all my life, and now I am a well-paid professional and a dapper creature of routine as our Queen intended.” Then comes a derailing shock: his doctor has run tests and given him six months to live. Mr. Williams is stunned, but it’s impossible to tell. One could say he feels “beaten down” by his affliction, but that would wrongly imply he’s ever risen up. This lowest-key master pencil-pusher now has to decide what to do with the time remaining. His love of his pathetic routine is gone in an instant. But now where to redirect his attentions? For the first time in years, he might just have to use his imagination.

Same as with Ikiru, at first comes dissatisfaction. Before anything else he means to share the bad news with his son and daughter-in-law, but after overhearing them discussing their future inheritance and what they’d love to do with it — unaware that he is indeed dying, yet hoping for it in a manner genteel and ghoulish — Mr. Williams ponders before silently declaring to himself, “Screw those kids.” (But, y’know, in hoity-toity Britspeak.) He has a chance encounter with a stranger in a diner (Tom Burke, a recent love interest in The Wonder and Orson Welles in Mank) who becomes his nightlife tutor. In most American comedies the rest of the movie would be nonstop partying until doomsday…but he and what The Kids Those Days called “fun” are a poor match.

Then he and one of his employees, the soon-to-be-resigned Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood from Netflix’s Sex Education), find an arrangement more fascinating to him. She’s a good listener who’s willing to go to the movies with him and let him drone on and on about subjects he loves and all the knowledge he’s acquired in his long, languorous life. He finds her cheeriness inspiring, wishes it were contagious, and takes a while to realize he’s perhaps too zealously enjoying his newfound hobby of mansplaining the universe to her and being her constant BFF in public. At this point comes one of Living‘s more telling divergences from Ikiru in its young lady’s reaction and decision in the awkward matter. One is less inclined to be charitable; the other, made in a #MeToo world, affords a moment of merciful reflection.

It isn’t hard to guess that his quest for purpose leads him to his ultimate foe: the bureaucracy itself. A proposed park project he’d pushed off suddenly becomes a noble cause, a spiritual precursor to Leslie Knope and that darn Lot 48. Though he’s scarcely louder or more boisterous than before (except for one coughing fit, his condition is barely noticeable — he was always this lifeless), Mr. Williams at long last is reservedly overwhelmed with a need to accomplish. But can he slip through the cogs of the machine to make things happen before he shambles off this mortal coil?

Hermanus and his crew render ’50s England as one big collection of endless tiny boxes, where every indoor space is cramped and drained of color, coffins that snuff the twinkles in everyone’s eyes. The camera itself can barely fit inside, let alone maneuver around its targets. In the Public Works office it’s blinded by the looming stacks of papers and folders that obscure coworkers from each other, though they’re convinced these blinders represent status symbols. (Burial in more work means you’re more useful! It isn’t a burden, it’s a compliment! So they’re taught to believe. I know this precise delusion from personal experience.) Not until Williams’ awakening at the end are he and the camera freed up to wider perspectives, gaining enough ground to pull back and look at what’s been done.

In one final divergence the gulf is at its widest between the aims of Kurosawa and Hermanus in their respective rat-race commentaries. Ikiru ends with a sharp indictment of the passionless, narrow-sighted drones that Kurosawa feared his society might become. It might feel predictable today, here in 2023 where such indictments are a cottage industry unto themselves. Living is a bit old-fashioned in its own way, but one that’s more refreshing in our angrier, ever more recursively looping workaday lives. It extends us a grace note in the realization that Mr. Williams’ efforts and last-minute self-repurposing don’t go unnoticed. Someone in that musty business-hoarders’ bureau heeds Mr. Williams’ example and unboxes themselves. Here, we aren’t merely chastened; we’re emboldened to go forth and do likewise.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Chief among the players I didn’t explicitly mention above is Alex Sharp (one of the second-tier defendants in The Trial of the Chicago 7) as young Mr. Wakeling, the department’s newest employee for whom all hope and vigor aren’t yet sluiced out. Folks in other departments and walks of life include Adrian Rawlins (Harry Potter’s dead dad); Michael Cochrane (Downton Abbey‘s go-to wedding officiator, Reverend Travis); Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey‘s Lavinia Swire, Matthew Crawley’s first fianceé); and Lia Williams, best known in our household as The Crown‘s very own Wallis Simpson.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Living end credits, just a reprise of one of Mr. Williams’ favorite ditties — “The Rowan Tree”, as performed by British folk singer Lisa Knapp. That’s “Rowan” pronounced not like “Rowan and Martin”, but rather to rhyme with “plowin'”, and not to be confused with the homophonous “rowin'” that was a key running gag in The Banshees of Inisherin, an entirely different Oscar-nominated 2022 period piece about a UK gent making tough choices about what to do with his remaining time on Earth and causing awkwardness to others along the way, particularly to key folks with whom he feels he should no longer be candid, though he does enjoy a musical number where he can. Nope, quite a different film.

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