Living ★★½

Perhaps no one has captured the lives and inner voices of the British servant, civil or otherwise, than novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro. His The Remains of the Day is still one of the finest novels about duty, loyalty and accountability and how those ideals can subsume one’s identity to the point of annihilation. With this credential, Ishiguro may be the perfect writer to adapt Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal film Ikiru, regardless of what one might think of the necessity of such an enterprise.

Living Movie

Bill Nighy plays Rodney Williams in the role originated by Takashi Shimura, a bureaucrat whose main occupation seems to be to avoid responsibility and pass it onto someone else in a neverending, Kafkaesque labyrinth of paperwork. When his doctor informs him that he has only a few months to live because of cancer, this diagnosis spurs Williams to reevaluate his life and determine that he has never truly “lived.” 

Though Kurosawa’s version of this story looms large in film history, there is no ironclad reason that this story cannot be adapted into other cultural contexts. Ikiru itself is based on the Tolstoy novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and bureaucracy and quiet lives of desperation certainly exist everywhere. In fact, Ishiguro effortlessly transplants the story into postwar London, with his characteristic precision of dialogue and underlying emotional depth. Bill Nighy, along with the rest of the cast, delivers his words with the right balance of restraint and emotion. This balance serves as an interesting comment on how the British had to endure some of the most devastating years of their lives during World War II and that nothing less than a “stiff upper lip” could save any of them from wallowing in despair over having to rebuild their lives. In Ikiru, WWII’s influence was subtext, but Ishiguro makes it text in the one real innovation for this film.

Both Ishiguro and Nighy’s nominations for Academy Awards are well-deserved and if the rest of Living had actually lived up to their caliber of work, then it might have made even more of an impression than it did. Director Oliver Hermanus had distinguished himself with Beauty, about a racist, homophobic South African white man coming to terms with his own sexuality, but the direction of Living is rarely distinguished and often quite staid. Some of the best moments are taken from the Kurosawa film, such as the scene in the playground or the club scene where the protagonist sings a song in a rare display of raw emotion. 

Even though both Ikiru and Living ostensibly tell the same story with even the same structure, especially in the third act, Kurosawa manages to take his signature visual style and make a quiet story about one dull bureaucrat into an epic. When the protagonist in Ikiru is out for a night on the town and goes to a club, the way that Kurosawa evokes the excitement of the club through his signature use of bodies and brilliant blocking serves as a stark contrast to the meek bureaucrat, whereas in Living, Nighy’s Rodney simply goes to one distraction to another with nothing distinguishing the different pleasures he encounters. Ishiguro does give a little more characterization and agency to the supporting characters, especially to the young female subordinate (played in Living by Aimee Lou Wood) who briefly seems to open Rodney up to a new perspective on life. But there isn’t enough in these supporting roles to really distinguish Living either. 

If one were unaware of Ikiru, Living will probably come off as an affecting, even poignant drama about the pursuit of meaning and confronting one’s own mortality. And while it may seem unfair to compare this film to Ikiru, it invites those comparisons by appropriating the same story beats and visual language. Ultimately, Living has little of the transcendence that Kurosawa managed to achieve through bold cinematic language, which created indelible scenes that images that many films, including this one, can only hope to faintly emulate. There is enough craft in both the writing and performances to admire, but it is unlikely to leave a lasting impression beyond other rote inspirational fare.

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