New from Peter Spedale on Be Movie See Movie: Movie Review: Living

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In general, I would NOT recommend trying to adapt an Akira Kurosawa movie. I mean, why try to make a movie better than one of the greatest directors of all time right? Living thankfully doesn’t try to upstage Kurosawa. Instead, it hews true to Kurosawa’s Ikiru while translating it to a British story, and giving Bill Nighy just a wonderful vehicle to show everyone why he’s always been one of our great working actors.

For those not up to date on the Kurosawa verse, Living is about a lifelong middle manager Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) in a suburb of 1950s London. He runs a piece of a British city planning department, committing “no harm” burying requests for new playgrounds in piles of paper or bureaucratic runarounds inside his own building. One day, Mr. Williams receives some life altering news, forcing him to take some time off work. This raises the heads of his staff like new hire Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp) and female staffer Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), worried and surprised at this sudden choice by a reliable, stable figure.

There’s a reason Kurosawa is a genius. Living’s adaptation is nearly beat for beat the exact same tale, and the story has lost none if its power migrating to the British isles. There’s simply a lot of universality in watching helpless people struggling to navigate complex government bureaucracy, questioning one’s life choices, and living a purpose driven life. Award winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has his feet in both Japanese and British (he immigrated there in 1960) worlds, which makes Living’s adaptation pretty seamless. The opening titles immediately transport the audience to post war London, and the costumes, caustic sets, and various activities Mr. Williams takes up give the movie its specificity so they can find Kurosawa’s universal truths underneath them. And even though the ending isn’t quite as complicatedly perfect as Kurosawa’s, it’s still quite lovely.

But what I’ll remember Living most for is Bill Nighy. From comedies, to dramas, to zombie horror masterpieces, Nighy always took his dignified role as a character actor seriously, but never quite got a script catered to showcase his immense gifts. Living finally puts the glue guy at the center of the screen. Nighy (like Takashi Shimura in Ikiru) carries Mr. Williams with a stoic melancholy. Nighy’s version taps into that British well of burying ones emotions for the sake of the world around you, but Williams buried his feelings so far down it takes some extreme news to drive them back to the surface. As Mr. Williams then spends the rest of the film trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, Nighy lets those emotions eek out in little increments, never bursting, but showing just enough to find connections in people he never would have dared tried to before. It’s a beautifully modulated, complex portrayal of someone we barely notice and consider in our day to day lives, that makes us maybe go up to that person and strike up a conversation which might make their day.

It’s never too late. Living is also a reminder to maybe ask out that person you have a crush on. Or finish that script you were writing. Or help that friend who’s in need. And for the Aimee Lou Wood stans like me, it’s a nice reminder to the casting agents to get her in more stuff, cause she’s awesome. I love her nickname for Mr. Williams too: the Cornettos approve.

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