One of cinema’s most towering figures, Akira Kurosawa, inspires generations of filmmakers. It’s impossible to count the number of films that openly acknowledge his influence, but we rarely see direct adaptions of his work. The Magnificent Seven has long been the perfect cross-cultural adaptation, combining the darkness of lone warrior tropes with the Western. Debuting at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Living seeks to adapt one of Kurosawa’s quieter films, Ikiru, for Western audiences. Directed by Oliver Hermanus, scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro, and led by Bill Nighy, Living makes a valiant attempt. However, despite Nighy’s heartbreaking performance and Ishiguro’s depiction of repression, the film struggles to emerge from Ikiru‘s shadow.
Living follows Mr. Williams (Nighy), a bureaucrat struggling to come to grips with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Williams devoted his life to service, but he has little to show for it at the end of his life. He cannot communicate with his son or daughter-in-law and struggles to create friendships at work. However, when pushed by a former employee (Aimee Lou Wood), he begins building a local park.
Bill Nighy has long been overlooked as a cult-favorite character actor. He’s made a career out of hammy performances in genre films (Underworld, Shaun of the Dead, Pirates of the Caribbean) and saccharine British films (Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, About Time). There’s genuine love for him in the industry, yet he’s never received a role worthy of his considerable talents. Wisely, Living places him at the center of the film, which creates a surprising issue: the film does not live up to his stunning performance.
Nighy is subtle and quiet. It is frank and tragic. Yet the flashes of life inject Living with a purpose that it struggles to maintain when he’s not on screen. Few films miss their lead performance as much as Living. His version of Williams cannot be ignored, and Nighy will break your heart into a thousand pieces before making you believe in the power of one man all over again.
The rest of the cast tries valiantly, but they rarely get the chance to shine. Most performers speak about Nighy’s Williams in hushed tones and memories. Much of the narrative is channeled through Alex Sharp‘s Peter, one of Williams’ employees in the local government. Sharp does his best to provide passion to the material, but the exceedingly conservative London of the 1950s refuses to acknowledge anything outside the norm. While Sharp livens up the screen, his co-workers come across as droll in and frustratingly empty.
Actress Aimee Lou Wood stands out from the supporting cast. Wood’s magnetic charisma and charm shine through the dark offices of the government building, and she provides Nighy a springboard for his most emotional moments. As Nighy delivers devasting retrospectives on his life, Wood embodies the “acting is listening to your partner” mantra. Her emotional breakdowns occur in near silence, a stark contrast to the bubbly energy she injects into her other scenes in the film. She brings self-awareness to the character that the film desperately needs.
Another problem facing Living is its devotion to Kurosawa’s original film. The adaptation does very little to differentiate itself from its source material other than changing the setting. This is exceedingly odd coming from Ishiguro, who seems like the perfect fit for this kind of project. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day expertly picks apart the stuffiness of British society with the passions everyone feels in their heart. Never Let Me Go confronts the fears of our mortality. Yet Living never steps out of the ideas of the original Kurosawa story. Ishiguro seems primed to take the ideas at the center of Ikiru and expand their meaning, but in this case, he leaves most of the source material in place. This goes beyond mere plot but even extends to individual scenes.
Replacing 1950s Japan with 1950s London adds to a stodgy and slow-moving pace that will leave many frustrated. Yet it’s hard to argue that Hermanus can do much more with the material. The cinematography from Jaime Ramsay provides some gorgeous images. Sandy Powell’s costumes deliver in their simplicity and add much-needed pops of period-appropriate color outside the office. The sets are gorgeously decorated and intimate. Hermanus and his editors keep the film lean, clocking in at just over 100 minutes. The tone is too monotonous at times. While this fits the story, it does not make for the most pleasurable viewing experience.
Living will not disappear as the year goes on, especially as viewers connect with Nighy’s brilliant turn. He is worth the price of admission alone, even as the film struggles to meet him on his level. There’s plenty to like about Living, but it is hard to ignore that the superior version of this film already exists. Those unaware of Ikiru may find more enjoyment in Living, but its connections to the original undeniably hamper this film.