In 1843, a British writer published a story about a man who, in his ambition for a secure life in business, drove away those around him and hollowed out that life. Eventually, faced with the threat of his own death, he changed his ways and began reconnecting: doing good in the world. The writer was Charles Dickens, and the story was “A Christmas Carol.”
In 1889, a Russian writer published a similar story about a man who sought security and social standing through the legal profession. He achieved it, but at the cost of family estrangement and a life of superficialities. Eventually, facing his impending death, he came to terms with this. While he could not escape that death, he was able to appreciate life. The writer was Leo Tolstoy, and the book was “The Death of Ivan Illich.”
In 1952, a Japanese film-maker wrote a screenplay about a Japanese civil servant who achieved a position of prominence and security, but saw his family become estranged, and his life becoming just a long series of perfunctory tasks, without value to him or others. A medical sentence of approaching death made him realize his mistakes and accomplish one generous act of atonement. The film maker was Akira Kurosawa and the film was “Ikiru.”
Which brings us full circle to the British film, “Living.” This is a 2022 re-imagining of what came before, specifically “Ikiru.” The writer, Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”), and director, Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”), have moved the story and characters to 1950s London, but the story itself is intact.
Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy — “Love Actually”) is a dried-up civil servant, head of a department of dried and drying civil servants which approves projects within London. His goal in life was to become a gentleman, and in that he has succeeded. But along the way, as in the examples I’ve written about above, he’s lost his soul and his life’s meaning. His department is run perfunctorily, without regard as to whether it actually serves the populace or not. When it does not, in a whispery dry voice, he shelves the request with a perfunctory, “It will do no harm.”
In fact, the entire machinery of the bureaucracy, of which he is but one cog, runs in exactly the same way. And because of that, he has lost all sense of humanity; only an outward shell of courtesy remains.
Then comes the day when his own sentence is passed. He has six to nine months to live before cancer takes him. It is at this point that he looks at his life and realizes how meaningless it really is, and how much he has missed. His first attempt, ignoring his job, is to throw himself into the carnal pleasures of seaside Brighton, but after a day he realizes he won’t find himself there. Later, wandering the streets of London, he runs into a young woman who for a time was part of his department. He tells her how he secretly admired her ability to throw herself into life – to do something he cannot: have fun.
There is of course much more to the story, but that is for you to discover. And you should.
Bill Nighy has a long and distinguished career, mostly playing understated characters with strong inner spirit. And he has played vampire royalty in the “Underworld” series. Here he does an excellent job of deftly merging a quiet officiousness into a shy tenderness as he faces the greatest test of his life.
Other characters are also well presented: the young escapee from his department, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood – “Uncle Vanya”); the Brighton rascal who took Williams round the town, Sutherland (Tom Burke – “Mank”); Williams’ successor in office head and dryness, Middleton (Adrian Rawlins – “The Colour Room”); and a police patrolman (Thomas Coombs – “The Boiling Point”).
London of the 1950s is recalled with the Kodachrome brilliance of period film, along with deft recreations of street scenes and interiors. The pacing is slow, making the characters linger before us and giving time for the meaning of each scene to sink in. And the music is highlighted by beautiful period selections from the original artists.
This is an excellent film dealing with, as the Ghost of Christmas Past said to Ebeneezer Scrooge, “Your reclamation then.”
Note: Yet another story along these lines is the 2022 film “A Man Called Otto,” which stars Tom Hanks.
Runtime: One hour, 42 minutes
Availability: Theaters, VOD
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