Living – Basic Still and Calm (★★★☆☆)
Living is a remake of a 70-year-old Japanese film with the setting changed to London. The story is a classic, about a man who, told he only has six months to live, suddenly decides to do something different with his life. Nighy’s acting is “spot on”, and the film is a tearjerker, but ultimately it doesn’t present anything new.
Living – The Oscar Buzz. Oscar Nominations: Adapted Screenplay (Kazuo Ishiguro), Leading Actor (Bill Nighy).
Living did not win an Oscar, but it was nominated in two major categories, for the adapted screenplay and the leading actor. The screenwriter, Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan but his family moved to London in 1960, when he was only six years old. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.
Noting the similarities between British and Japanese national characters (see below), he had always wanted to adapt Kurusawa’s 1952 film Ikiru to a British setting from its original Japanese roots. From the beginning of his project, he had always imagined Bill Nighy playing the central character.
Bill Nighy plays Mr. Williams, the main character who received his first Oscar nomination for this performance. Born in 1949 in Surrey, England, he won the BAFTA Supporting Actor award in 2003 for his role in Love Actually. He has starred as an un-dead character in two Underworld films, two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and in Shaun of the Dead, making his nickname in this film “Mr. Zombie” a rather pointed reference.
You can notice a disability in his hands, known as Dupuyten’s Contracture, where his ring and small fingers are permanently curled inward, a condition that may give him a special insight into life’s sufferings.
With two major nominations, Living earns a rating of four on my Oscar Quality Index, placing it 13th, or exactly in the middle, of the 25 general interest films in this year’s Oscar slate.
It isn’t surprising that a director brings along people who have worked with him before. In this case, the most prominent retaining member of his team is the Cinematographer, Jamie Ramsay. Ramsay incorporated a novel idea in this movie by filming it in the unusual aspect ratio of 1.48:1, which seems especially good for portrait images, of which there are many. Since the movie was set several decades ago in a London that was even more “British” than it is now, the costumes are part of the charm of this film.
I was looking forward to this movie, but after the first viewing, I felt somewhat disappointed. The film is indeed slow-moving but, thankfully, isn’t overlong. And Bill Nighy gives what is probably the best performance of his career. But the film felt too transparent, and obvious – everything just sort of fell into place too neatly. Like many other viewers, I cried towards the end, but after thinking about it, I felt somewhat manipulated.
My wife, Joan, had similar feelings, having given it just a C+. But, she said, the best part of the movie was the last thirty minutes. And she wondered what would happen if the director had inverted the sequencing, so that the last thirty minutes came first and, leaving lots of unanswered questions with the rest of the film filling in the gaps.
So, not having anything better to do with this film, I, for a change, listened to my wife. On my second viewing, I started the movie at scene 12 on the DVD version (approximately 65 minutes in). It resulted in a more challenging experience and, if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might consider making this programming change.
The first fifteen minutes of the movie (as intended by the director) is the setup.
We are introduced to all the major players and, especially, to Mr. Williams’ life which is so mundane and repetitive that you have to think he is, indeed, “Mr. Zombie”. He isn’t living – he is just existing.
Around 17 minutes, things change dramatically. Mr. Williams learns that he has cancer and can only expect to live another six to nine months. Watch his facial expressions as he comes to understand what he has been told. \(In fact, pay close attention to his face whenever he is on the screen – Nighy does most of his emotional expression through his eyes and the way he holds his face!)
The next twenty minutes do not take place in London but are somewhere else. In point of fact, I don’t think it matters – it must be “somewhere else”. Mr. Williams attempts to let go, but in ways that are so foreign to him that he ends up feeling even worse than before. It is an interesting and necessary experiment, but it fails.
At the 38-minute mark, Nighy begins a relationship with someone who used to work for him. I say “relationship”, but it really isn’t romantic – it is an old man discovering what he has missed. The relationship continues for a few days (or nearly 30 minutes in the movie) and is the self-discovery part of Mr. Williams’s journey.
The key insight occurs as he reminisces about his childhood at the 1 hour and 4 minute mark. (If you invert the movie as I suggested earlier, I think it is important that you not start the film before this point). But once Mr. Williams understands what his life means to him, then the rest of the film is how he turns meaning into action.
The idea that we don’t really appreciate life until our mortality is looking us in the face is not a new one. Some people get it earlier and some never do. But for most of us, it takes a series of jolts to move us into a different trajectory – one more consistent with having some purpose and meaning in our lives.
The film isn’t the best and I agree that it is manipulative and somewhat simple-minded. (And I really didn’t like the totally cynical insert near the end back at the office, for example.) But for no other reason, watch it for Nighy’s performance and for a reminder that life is short and you need to live it to the fullest while you have it. (3*)
Where to Watch: Stream: Netflix. Rent: Prime/Apple/Google/Vudu/YouTube (all $5) or wherever you get your disks.