Living (2022)

Olivier Hermanus | 1hr 42min

The mountainous structures of files that British bureaucrat Mr Williams has spent his life building is virtually a fort for him, keeping out those distractions he deems insignificant, and insulating him in a state of lifeless passivity. These paper towers crowd out his office in the local council’s Public Works department, forcing him to the edges of the frame and obstructing our view of him with Oliver Hermanus’ delicate shallow focus. The social etiquette and conventions which govern 1950s London’s middle-class may be rigidly defined, but Mr Williams’ grounding in a firm sense of self is not – that is until a terminal cancer diagnosis forces a personal reckoning. Perhaps it is this fresh setting and polished aesthetic which most tangibly sets Living apart from the film it is adapting, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, even if it is overshadowed in virtually every other aspect.

When remaking such elevated source material and deciding how faithful it will be, there is great risk along either path. Sticking too close to what already exists compromises creativity, as is often the case in Living’s familiar narrative structure. Straying too far on the other hand will almost certainly lose much of what gave the original film its power. Hermanus’ addition of the bland Mr Wakeling character serves little purpose, and his removal of several key flashbacks also incidentally develops Mr Williams into a less complex character than his counterpart in Ikiru.

Still, there is a revitalising novelty to Hermanus’ clean, polished direction, steering clear of Kurosawa’s deep focus photography and instead relying on his own filmmaking instincts. His production design’s period detail is as beautifully refined as his staging, sending slow-motion crowds of suited men across bridges and into office buildings against the elegant flourishes of a lush piano and strings score. “Not too much fun and laughter,” one of them warns their newest colleague, and it could almost be their motto. The melancholic joy of Living comes through when Hermanus loosens his style even further, breaking up his predominantly muted palettes with a flash of golden lighting in the bar where Mr Williams ventures beyond his comfort zone, or filling his home with memories that fade from monochrome into colour.

Most significantly though, it is Bill Nighy’s tremendously subtle performance that drives the pathos of the film, sinking into a weary depression when answers cannot be found in the hedonism of London’s nightlife, before letting a sly charm start to break through his lethargic demeanour. Maybe if Hermanus sat a little longer in his most spell-binding moments it would have been an even greater acting achievement, as we move on from Nighy’s impromptu, melancholic rendition of the Scottish folk song ‘The Rowan Tree’ just a little too quickly.

Living might be best appreciated as a standalone film, as although our protagonist’s last minutes onscreen pales in comparison to the marvellous dolly shot of Ikiru, it remains an affecting scene on its own terms. While Nighy sits in the children’s park he has spent the last few months of his life building, a bleak, powdery snowfall encases him in freezing temperatures, and yet not even that can dull the poignant spark in his musical reprise of ‘The Rowan Tree.’ Hermanus effectively carries out a cultural transplant in his adaptation, shifting this mid-century tale of one dying man’s passionate enlightenment from Japan to London, and imbuing it with a whole new context of soul-sucking social customs and routines. If anybody is only going to watch one version of this story, Kurosawa’s masterpiece is the clear winner, but as far as remakes of classics go Living holds up surprisingly well.

Living is currently playing in theatres.


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