If a doctor, heaven forbid, were to tell Bill Nighy that his demise was imminent, we’d expect a clever retort or a subtle response that resisted turning the moment into high-stakes drama. Nighy has become an actor we feel we know.
Of course, I have no idea how Nighy might respond to such devastating news, but in Living, Nighy plays a dying character whose emotions are expressed in ways that are bravely undemonstrative.
Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a bureaucrat in London’s Public Works Department. He’s a widowed commuter whose life, as he says at one point, has avoided either happiness or misery.
Mr. Williams lives in the suburbs with his son (Barney Fishwick) and daughter in-law (Patsy Ferran) and governs his life with structured routine. If it’s “picture day,” Mr. Williams goes to the movies.
As the supervisor of a small group of paper pushers, Mr. Williams focuses on the stack of paperwork before him, reacting unemotionally to the bureaucratic buck passing that unfolds when his agency is asked to approve construction of a small playground.
The movie begins by introducing us to Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), the newest member of the Public Works team. Unbent by years of service, Wakeling questions what the others long have accepted — the absurd workings of a procedure-crazed government agency.
Aimee Lou Wood portrays Margaret Harris, a young woman who, unlike her colleagues, seems not have lost touch with the rhythms of life. Not surprisingly, she has accepted a job at a restaurant, where she hopes to ascend into management.
An English-language remake of Ikira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), Living benefits from the stiff constraints that, in this movie, define London life during the 1950s, the period when the story takes place.
The story's development hinges on what only can be described as Mr. William’s quiet rebellion.
Once told that he’s dying, Mr. Williams stops going to work. He travels to a beach town where he encounters a footloose fellow (Tom Burke) who tries to introduce him to the local pleasures.
Mr. Williams doesn’t return to work, but a chance encounter in London with Miss Harris leads him to an attempt at capturing a bit of life before it’s too late. And, no, we’re not talking about a misguided sexual encounter.
Working from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, director Oliver Hermanus can’t blot out every trace of sentimentality, but Nighy’s restraint makes it clear that Mr. Williams is not the sort of fellow ever to gush and his performance serves to characterize the movie. When Mr. Williams lets down his hair, it’s strictly one strand at a time.
Nighy creates a memorable portrait of a decent man who has lived a dreary life but who comes to understand that small gains must be savored, perhaps because for him (as for most of us) that might be all there is.