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Sundance 2022 Review: Living – “Truly elegant in its execution”

Bill Nighy appears in Living by Oliver Hermanus, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Number 9 Films/Ross Ferguson.

Every day, Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) catches the same train into London. He always sees his employees on the commute but never sits with them and always departs the station in front of them as they walk from Waterloo Station to County Hall.  It’s 1953 and it’s clear that this civil servant has been at this job a while.  Ever the consummate bureaucrat, he’s an expert at moving paper around between different departments in circles. When it returns to him he simply and calmly says, “We can keep it here. There is no harm,” before relegating it to the inert stack of similar files on his desk.  Then, at the end of the day Mr. Williams, a widower, returns home where his son and daughter-in-law also reside, but largely ignore him.

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However, things for Mr. Williams change suddenly when his doctor diagnoses him with terminal cancer, telling him he has six months to live.  To live! But what does that mean?  He does something he’s clearly never done and skips work, withdrawing some cash and heading to Bournemouth where he meets a man (Tom Burke) who tries to show him what living means.  But after a night in dark corners, amusement parlours with lots of drinks, music and women it’s clear to Williams that this isn’t his brand of living.  When he finally returns to London, he runs into one of his employees (Aimee Lou Williams) and they spend the afternoon conversing, taking in museums and walking through parks.  It’s her youth that Williams really covets, but knowing he can’t turn back time she instead inspires him to use his position to leave a lasting legacy.

Living is based on the 1952 Akira Kurosawa film, Ikiru.  This ‘reimagining’ of the original, directed by Oliver Hermanus is penned by Kazuo Ishiguro, probably best known as an author of novels like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.  His often profound words match the sophistication that Hermanus creates with this film.  From the stunning classical score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch to the wonderful cinematography from Jamie D. Ramsay, Living is truly elegant in its execution.  The opening credits are in a style reminiscent of a 1950’s film, instantly setting up the time period, with an aspect ratio to match that Hermanus stays with throughout.  The director finds beauty where others may not, in the movement of people during the morning commute, a swing set in a playground.

But despite all its beauty, Living wouldn’t stand on its own without the indelible performance of Bill Nighy.  He often has this quiet and melancholic quality beneath the surface, but in this film he asks it to thrive.  This is a role that requires nuance and understated thoughtfulness.  As Williams, he is calm and serene, yet one never forgets that he is a man running out of time and trying to figure out what he can do with the time left.  I can only hope it’s a performance we are still talking about next year at this time.

I have not seen the original film but I have to believe that Living is likely, at the very least, respectful of it.  It asks all the right questions in the most dignified way.  What does it mean to really live?  How will you be remembered?  Will you live for yourself or for others?  Perhaps the overwhelming and thought-provoking message I took from Williams’ quiet and graceful journey is this – that how we live, affects how we live on.

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