Though Bill Nighy’s performance in Shaun of the Dead should be considered one of the finest pieces of acting in film history, the man is dominating Oscars conversations for his performance in Living, the new ultra-British drama from director Oliver Hermanus and writer Kazuo Ishiguro. The piece is adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru—itself a sort of adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich—wherein a man with little time left to live decides he’s gonna do some good while he still can.
Oh, it’s not that Nighy isn’t excellent in the film. As a stuffed-shirt über-fop working for London’s public works department in the 1950s, he’s perfectly flat and emotionless. All around him, vestiges of Britannia’s mind-your-manners faux politeness reign. “A bit like church,” says one character, as painfully correct as it is weird and pointless. As a dying guy who realizes propagating red tape kind of sucks, Nighy’s Mr. Williams is...well, he’s still pretty staid. Still, though, the message about trying to do good is pretty nice as messages go, and Living certainly cuts a pretty picture thanks to cinematographer Jamie Ramsay.
Here we find a repressed and aging British gent grappling with a terminal cancer diagnosis. None of his co-workers (über-serious Brits, all) know of his troubles, but they do seem irked when he stops showing up for work for just two days. See, he’s pulled out half his savings and set off for the coast, where, under the tutelage of some kind of poet or something (Jamie Wilkes, whom we know is artsy because he monologues briefly about how Paris is cool) he drinks a bunch, buys a new hat and falls in love with the art of the arcade claw machine. Oh, he returns to work shortly thereafter, only between his oceanside exploits and a growing platonic relationship with former employee Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood, Sex Education), he decides he’ll help some poverty-stricken mothers build a middling playground in, like, Whitechapel, probably.
The rest is either told through flashbacks that prove how dedicated Mr. Williams was in the end or painfully polite exchanges between his son, his underlings, his boss, the intriguing young Margaret and so on. Living is a little bit about happiness, a little bit about living and a whole lot slow. It would be so tempting to cite Nighy’s stirring rendition of a man literally re-discovering his voice as enough, but this is otherwise a run-of-the-mill drama that seemingly confuses swelling, dramatic music and tearful funerals as fine filmmaking. In fact, had any other actor undertaken the role of Mr. Williams, it might be a different conversation altogether. As it stands, the best you can say is that Nighy’s always good, so we can forgive the kind of slow pacing that kills cinema newcomers’ interests before they can blossom. Still, as Mr. Williams says in the film, if even the things without longevity can help someone, that’s enough—maybe Living will convince someone to live or be nice to people or something.
+Nighy’s wonderful; excellently shot
-Tedious; doesn’t trust its audience to draw their own conclusions
Directed by Hermanus
With Nighy, Wood and Wilkes
Center for Contemporary Arts, PG-13, 102 min.