Based on Akira Kurosawa's 'Ikiru', Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a veteran of London City Council's bureaucracy and lives a familiar, regulated existence. However, when faced with a terminal diagnosis, he sets out to live his final months in a decidedly different fashion, striking up an uncommon friendship with a variety of characters (Tom Burke, Aimee Lou Wood)...
Taking on a master like Akira Kurosawa and a masterwork like 'Ikiru' takes some amount of confidence. Remakes generally live in the shadow of their original and the differences between the two are often telling. There's too much of something, too little of another, or not enough of either to warrant the remake's existence. In 'Living', what gives it purpose and reason to exist is simply this - Bill Nighy in quite simply the best screen performance of his career to date.
'Living' has the grain and feel of a film made in the '50s, seamlessly blending in archival footage of London to the grey bulwark of London County Hall, as well as Kazuo Ishiguro's somewhat stately dialogue. Yet, for all of this pretension, 'Living' is unbelievably human. There are so many little moments of heartbreaking realism and vulnerability, all of them Nighy's of course. In previous roles, Nighy had a certain excess in his performances, yet here there's an artful reduction - whether it's him quietly sitting in the dark of his living room while his nebbish son and his hen-pecking daughter-in-law talk about their inheritance, or whispering his life's mistakes out to Aimee Lou Wood's character.
As much as this is Nighy's show through and through, the supporting cast are all skilful enough to give him the space and the rope to be as good as he is. Aimee Lou Wood's joie de vivre, Tom Burke's languid charms; they all illuminate the story and tie together with how much of life Bill Nighy's character has simply ignored or missed out on. Kazuo Ishiguro's script excises some of the commentary in 'Ikiru' and transmutes aspects of the culture of Japan in the '50s to London in the '50s with ease, but still retains the core themes and structure. If there's a complaint to be made about 'Living', it's that it adheres nearly too strictly to the original and doesn't venture beyond a broad outline of it.
Director Oliver Hermanus is able to carefully pace out the movie to allow the story a graceful path throughout, weaving in beautiful music and delicate scenes for a tapestry that unfolds to a heartbreaking and life-affirming conclusion. 'Living' works its way up to this with soulful moments and gentle editing, bringing the story forward in a stately manner and never feeling rushed or dragged.
'Living' will most likely and quite sadly pass by audiences on its way, but those who find it will discover a rare and precious gem of a movie. It doesn't have to spell itself out when there's more than enough said in a look or a choice of music, and 'Living' is more than strong enough to make itself heard. In the end, 'Living' is a moving, deeply affecting story of gaining purpose in existence, even for the briefest of moments.