Directed by Oliver Hermanus.
Starring Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, and Tom Burke.
An English-language adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, set in London in the 1950s.
It’s a testament to the tectonic power of Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1952 existential drama Ikiru that, even seven full decades on, the prospect of a Hollywood remake seems like sacrilege – or in less-reactionary terms, a lousy idea rife with calamitous potential.
And yet Living – paraphrasing the original’s translated title, “To Live” – carves out a comfortable nook for itself as a worthy retelling that should land well with both Kurosawa fans and those who’ve never even heard of him.
Produced with the blessing of the Kurosawa estate, this new take – penned by the great Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by rising South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) – shifts the setting from Tokyo to London, yet keeps the drama sealed within the postwar society of the 1950s.
Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a lifer civil servant who holds a mid-flying position in London’s County Hall without registering so much as a flicker of emotion. Less an official than a lanky paper-pusher with a pulse, his listless existence is turned on its head once he receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, giving him between six and nine months to both tie up his affairs and leave some sort of impression that he ever lived at all.
The existentially-imperiled Williams panickedly dabbles in fleeting sensory pleasures, but only finds true meaning while conversing with his peppy colleague Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), who motivates him to fight to have a playground, long mired in the web of bureaucratic inefficiency, built before he shuffles off his mortal coil.
The uniquely galvanising power of death looms large in Hermanus’ modest yet resolutely affecting drama, which of course won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen the original. The changes made by Hermanus and Ishiguro are largely of the superficial variety, cannily recalibrating the setting while retaining the time period, in turn sidestepping the nightmarish potential of having to reconfigure a Kurosawa movie within the context of smartphones and social media.
Though the film’s indictment of soulless, Kafkaesque bureaucracy is more-or-less the same as in Ikiru, this is an unmistakably British retelling beyond its obvious visual markers; the mannered, quiet reserve of the commuting middle-class, and the toe-curling notion that one must keep their “skyscraper” of paperwork high in order to look busy and impress their bosses.
Yet what ultimately makes Living worthwhile is the sharp efforts of its central cast. Bill Nighy, who cuts a naturally spectral figure, is perfectly cast as the successor to original lead Takashi Shimura. The characters are certainly not identical, Nighy being around a quarter-century older than Shimura was when he took the part, yet Nighy is exceptional as a man pathologically bereft of affect all while staring down the barrel of oblivion.
Whether he’s rapt in a soulful drunken sing-song of Scottish folk tune “The Rowan Tree” or delivering one of several heartbreaking monologues, his severity never fully lifts, which feels realistic and in step with the film’s sentiment-averse throughline. Anyone worried Hollywood might trot out every last saccharine trick in the book to make the film play to the multiplex masses will be relieved that this isn’t the case at all. Nighy, giving surely one of his finest performances, is a picture of quietly devastating restraint throughout.
Nighy is aided by highly compelling work from his co-stars, particularly rising Sex Education actress Aimee Lee Wood, who is similarly shrewdly cast as Williams’ vibrant co-worker, her ceaseless cheer and optimism able to rub off on him at least a little.
Their charming interactions count among the film’s easy highlights, where making Williams crack even the faintest smile is a major victory. Wood also has to carry a lot of the major dramatic weight in the third act, as does Alex Sharp, who plays Peter, a fresh-faced new employee at Williams’ firm. There are also memorable roles here for Tom Burke as a free-spirited artist Williams hunkers down with for a while, and another Sex Education actor, Adrian Rawlins, as Williams’ successor Middleton.
The opening titles nod to the period with their washed-out montage of archive footage chronicling a bustling London, while the film proper adopts an austere, stately filmmaking style. And yet, Jamie Ramsay’s boxy cinematography delivers some beautifully composed images; particularly excellent is the consistent framing of bureaucracy’s corridors and hallways as oppressively winding and cavernous.
And while it would be practically impossible for anyone to recapture the majesty of Ikiru’s iconic departing image, Ramsay takes a game stab at recreating it with love and respect – as is true of really the entire exercise. Composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s sparingly deployed musical score, best defined by swirling violins, is meanwhile emotionally impactful without veering into overwrought territory – always a concern with films of this subject matter.
Living didn’t need to exist, but what films do? While it’s certainly not going to supplant Kurosawa’s original in the minds of anyone familiar with it – nor is it trying to – it is further proof that it’s possible to remake the classics with class and restraint. This new version doesn’t hit as hard, but it’ll probably still make your heart hurt by the end.
A respectable – and respectful – remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic drama Ikiru, elevated by Bill Nighy’s stirring performance and strong support from Aimee Lou Wood and Alex Sharp.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.