A continuum of life, literature & film: ‘Living’ reviewed

Film · Reviews
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photo: jamie d. ramsay

What do you get when you combine British reserve and Japanese restraint with a dash of Russian pathos? A film experience that melds with our collective need for year-end contemplation, the exquisitely directed, acted, and written Living. The movie from Sony Pictures Classics opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 23, followed by a national roll-out.

The cinematic and literary pedigree of this movie is as extraordinary as the film itself: Living is directed by Oliver Hermanus (award-winning South African filmmaker, Shirley Adams, Moffie); with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, author of Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go); which he adapted from the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru by legendary director Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Seven Samurai); which in turn was inspired by the 1886 text by Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Now, exhale!

photo: ross ferguson

Set in postwar London, 1952, Living, with an abundance of style and reserve (of course, we’re British), tells the tale of Mr. Williams. A lifelong civil servant, his entire purpose in life has been devoted to generating paper to shuffle the dreams of others. After a devastating event, he starts on a journey to re-discover the meaning and purpose of his life. As we journey with him, Mr. Williams’s path becomes our own—a masterfully achieved catharsis.

Ishiguro’s excellent screenplay adaptation of Kurosawa’s Ikura honors the essence of each character while transporting the narrative to England. In doing so, he adds (a love relationship) and subtracts (Ikura‘s extensive use of narration). Director Oliver Hermanus’s visual style of framing the well-dressed public servants at a train station or his close-ups of Mr. Williams’s nuanced expressiveness all contribute to a work that elevates and engages.

It is no surprise that Living’s success rests on the casting of Bill Nighy (About Time, Emma), in a performance of brilliant timing and inflection, not to mention an angelic singing voice in a pivotal scene. And for all Generation XYZ fans of the streaming series Sex Education, Aimee Lou Wood demonstrates her range and charismatic presence in a supporting role. The ensemble performances in Living bring to life the story of one man whose late-in-life decisions spark contemplation and action in service of a higher good. There’s more to living than pushing paper or the minutiae of email and texts.

photo: ross ferguson

This new version of this twice-told narrative—once by a cinematic master, Kurasawa, and now in a compelling remake by Hermanus/Ishiguro—is a quiet yet forceful reminder of why our search for joy and happiness is not just a perennial cliche. Living, puts all of this aside and is perfect for any season.

bill nighy, aimee lou wood in Living, photos courtesy Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics


By day Stephan Koplowitz is a director/choreographer and the author of On Site-Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation (Oxford University Press, 2022). By night he’s an avid cinephile.

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