Words by Lewis Orr
Living is a powerful film that deals with an important subject: death. The film is based on Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), which is based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illyich (1886). The film examines the effect of the approach of death on one’s thoughts about one’s own life.
Bill Nighy plays the pinstriped bureaucrat Mr. Williams who learns he has less than a year to live. The first things to surface are memories of childhood, vague and various images of parents and traumatic events, donned in sepia. Then, Williams starts not turning up to his boring bureaucratic job. This is noticed by his colleagues. He then goes on an adventure around London that helps him to understand his own thoughts. He keeps the knowledge of his death a secret from nearly everyone. You will have to see the film to understand the thoughts and decisions he is led to.
This is an impressive performance from Bill Nighy that will see him nominated for an Academy Award. From the guy you last saw in Love Actually, there is a depth to his still British composure as he deals with the fact of death. As Roger Waters wrote: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”.
The film’s focus on death makes it unlikely that critics will pan or review the movie negatively. It treats the topic of death with enough good taste that this is almost ruled out as a critical response. At the moment, it holds a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This film is not for every mood and should ideally be viewed when one is in a sincere and sensitive space.
The other performances are good. This is important because the film borrows Tolstoy’s literary device of focusing on the effect of the main character on other characters. These other characters (such as Mr. Williams’ colleagues) are each, for a time, the main focus, and indeed the film begins and ends with them. This sends an important message that although death is a road we face on our own, our lives are intimately connected with those around us.
One of the linchpins of the story is the bureaucracy Mr. Williams works in, redolent of Orwell. The public office may remind you of the Ministry of Magic, remembering Nighy played Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter. This is a confronting place where nothing is accomplished. The state seems intent on rerouting any request from real people to the government through different departments until those who filed the request just give up. The office is a burlesque device but not one that limits the poignancy of the film. After all, in the shadow of death, our working lives can seem particularly banal, howling beasts that threaten important times. It depends on how you look at it.
If you are looking for something deep and melancholy, you will like this film. If you are looking to spend a moment in the introspection that surrounds death, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Illyich, you will like this film. No matter your view, it is a well-made film and likely to stand the test of time.