Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) is, from the very start of Oliver Hermanus’s crisp and classy Ikiru remake, Living, a man living a half-life, so bored and trudging that his buying a marginally different new hat constitutes an office controversy – his kindly and bubbly underling Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) even calls him ‘Mr Zombie’ as a, mostly affectionate, nickname. She doesn’t quite know how right she is – Williams has received a stomach cancer diagnosis that gives him between six and nine months to live, forcing him to take stock in an understated but powerful look at what exactly might constitute ‘a life’s work’.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Tokyo-set classic hasn’t exactly been crying out for a reimagining, but Hermanus and his screenwriter – the legendary Kazuo Ishiguro – make it worthwhile by moving the action to the London of the time, where post-WW2 emotional repression was in full force. It’s an environment that has deadened Williams – everyone here is referred almost exclusively by their surname, the clipped formality of the era perfectly captured by Ishiguro’s writing – a man already wounded by decades of loneliness since his wife’s untimely death. We see his malaise in his work at the London City Council’s Public Works Department, where his – and all his colleague’s – approach to any citizen request is to bounce it between departments until it’s entirely forgotten.
It’s a life Williams realises he’s wasted the instant he gets his terminal prognosis, the news that he’s dying finally allowing him to live. He takes sudden trips to the coast, takes a both friendly and fatherly interest in Miss Harris and her bon vivant attitude, and starts a crusade to fund and build a local children’s playground, the effort of which genuinely inspires his drab co-workers, especially Williams’s newbie protégé Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp). It’s one of Nighy’s greatest ever screen performances, perhaps his absolute best, playing the quintessential Englishman who wants to change what that quintessence implies.
His ever-less-disguised pain is deeply moving, as are the occasional chances he’s given to sing old Scottish folk songs, which make for some of Living’s most involving moments. Wood is also excellent, the megawatt charm she has on Sex Education translating seemingly effortlessly to the big screen, and the rest of the performances are very well modulated to the staccato, guarded rhythms of Ishiguro’s writing.
You never once doubt the authenticity of the world Ishiguro and Hermanus have built, helped by the brightly beautiful cinematography. The compositions here are careful and deliberate, referencing an understated ‘50s style, while Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s wonderful score immerses you even further, capturing a similar sort of magic to Jonny Greenwood’s superlative soundtrack for Phantom Thread (to which an awkward dinner scene complete with grating sound design feels like a nice nod).
If you didn’t know Living was a remake, it would be hard to guess as much – this story feels superbly suited to a British setting (right down to a louche Tom Burke cameo). But, truth be told, it would work anywhere, people attempting, in their own ways, to fight back against the daily grind and the deleterious effect it has on their souls – a message that could hardly be more simultaneously timely and timeless.