Living: More than Just a Lead Performance

Oliver Hermanus’s Living is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru, a film which this reviewer has shamefully never seen. The film has been bubbling in the Oscar conversation for a few select categories for months now, but upon wide release it seems that it’s being underdiscussed if anything.

Bill Nighy stars as Williams, the head of the Public Works department in 1950s London. He seems to be built ideally for bureaucratic work with a nose to the grindstone mentality that has little interest in helping people unless they have first gotten the necessary paperwork from the Parks department.

Williams’s normally untouchable routine is broken one afternoon when he must leave early for a doctor’s appointment. It is at that appointment that he learns that he has terminal cancer and will pass away in six months, eight to nine at the most.

Unable to process, he skips work the next day and happens to meet a young man to whom he spills his predicament. Williams had earlier that morning withdrew a large amount of cash, and he’s in need of someone to show him how to have a good time. The two men go out on a rager jumping from club to seedier club.

The next day, Williams runs into his recently former associate, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) and the two go out for lunch while Williams writes her a recommendation. Williams feels a strong connection with Miss Harris, and they build a friendship which gives him a reason to change his outlook on life for the last few months.

Bill Nighy is the standout performance of the film as the elderly Williams. He captures the meek voice of a man who has never lived but slowly opens up as days go on as he lives his life away from work for the first time. Nighy displays remarkable range despite adhering to Williams rather quiet demeanor.

Aimee Lou Wood is also worth calling out as Miss Harris. She may act as the manic pixie dream girl for Nighy’s Williams, but instead of the traditional MPDG persona, she plays someone much more grounded. She doesn’t feel amiss from the 1950s society that she belongs to, yet she is able to be the catalyst which Williams uses to evolve. Balancing these decisions is difficult, yet Lou Wood delivers remarkably and should be getting more attention.

An interesting decision that Hermanus makes with the film is to change the perspective for the third act of the film to that of Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), a young professional who started working in Williams’s department right when Williams learned of his diagnosis. The film does this to highlight the impact that Williams had on those around him after going through his awakening. While the purpose for this perspective change makes sense with respect to the film’s narrative and deeper meaning, it is still a little jarring when the perspective change takes place.

Living is a simple film with simple themes, and yet the combination of Nighy’s acting and Hermanus’s direction produces a film that feels seminal. The film worms its way int to the subconscious and affects the viewer much the same way Williams’s diagnosis impacted him.