The Wheel of Destiny has been whittled down to only a few remaining titles, which is good considering the Oscars are right around the corner. I may not even get all of the titles off the Wheel as I have a couple of outliers I’m still trying to see, but I will do my best.
The most recent spin brings us to Oliver Hermanus’ adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Now, I have not seen Kurosawa’s film so I won’t bother trying to make comparisons but I knew Living was adapted from his work so it was hard not to see some of the stylistic choices that would carry over culturally. Anyway, Living is a beautiful film that raises a lot of existential questions by drawing a clear line in the sand between what it means to be alive and what it means to truly live.
Set in London in the 1950s, a solemn civil servant pushing papers for the local government is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Given only a few months to live, he begins to search for meaning and connection as he reflects on his life choices.
I don’t know if it’s true or not but there’s a rumor that Kurosawa had long wanted to remake Ikiru in English with Bill Nighy and it was a chance cab ride after a party that set things in motion for this film to come to fruition. That’s a very sweet metaphor for seizing the opportunity which lines up nicely with the film’s message.
Most of the Awards Season buzz surrounding the Best Actor conversation has gone toward Brendan Fraser and Austin Butler for their respective performances but if there is a dark horse in the race, it has to be Bill Nighy. It was a masterful and refined performance that wasn’t loud, boisterous, or larger-than-life in any way. It’s the exact opposite. This was a character that was intentionally menial and tedious and it’s Nighy chipping away at the nearly fossilized existence of his character with microexpressions, body language, or even the cadence in delivering his lines that highlight the performance. His subtle nuance shows a lot of respect for the character, the source material, and the audience. All of that comes pouring out of him in a rendition of “The Rowan Tree” which he sings at a bar after a long night on the town.
I also read that Director Oliver Hermanus watched Ikiru in film school and the respect he has for him is apparent in the creative decisions he brought into his version of the story. The visual style of Living is very measured. Great care was taken to ensure that the movie wasn’t even told in a modern style, relying on longer shots that gave the ideas room to breathe. The coloration is a bit desaturated as well, to help mimic the appearance of films from that era. It is deliberate and slower in its pace than modern films as well, but it feels right on time at 1h 42m without feeling bloated or sparse. Hermanus really understood what the film needed to be and he allowed it to go at the pace of its lead character who, while terminally ill, isn’t in a rush. That’s very different than the kind of “bucket list” ideas we’ve seen in more recent years where it’s about checking as much off the to-do list as possible. This likely had a very small audience but I am glad that there is room for this kind of stuff still.
While the story is primarily about Nighy’s Mr. Williams, there are a couple of other key roles. Aimee Lou Wood is wonderful as Margaret Harris, a young woman who worked in Mr. Williams’ department but moved on. And Alex Sharp plays Peter Wakeling, the young man who (more or less) replaces her. She represents the person who bucked against the system and rejected a stable but banal life at a desk while Sharp was there to remind Williams of where he started. His exposure to these two younger people in general has a profound impact on him that he is unable to experience with his own son and I think I’ll just leave it at that.
I mentioned the look of the film a bit earlier and I want to acknowledge Helen Scott’s production design that is hyper-focused on period realism. The era is a big part of the film’s character and she did a magnificent job. Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography is very good and likely underappreciated because it may not have the craziest or most innovative shots but it does paint a charming portrait of regular life and there are some really strong visuals in there as well. Similarly, the score by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch is delightful and a great complement to the character-driven story.
I’m a little surprised this one didn’t make the best picture cut because it hits all its marks with precision and is the kind of film the Academy tends to like. Looking at the Oscar nominees for Best Picture there are a few that could easily get swapped out for this one but I can read between the lines and it is what it is. Don’t let that dissuade you from seeing one of the best films of 2022.
Recommendation: See it for its life-affirming message, beautiful storytelling, and of course Nighy’s incredible performance that may end up being the crown jewel of his career.
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