Remaking Kurosawa seems a fool's errand, but Living has at least three elements in its favour. Firstly, although much admired, 1952's Ikiru has fallen out of circulation in recent years, revived far less regularly than Kurosawa's action movies, and therefore arguably less sacrosanct. (Even within its maker's filmography, it remains something of an outlier.) Secondly, Ikiru's themes were always essentially universal. This story is founded on the understanding that every day, across the world, people go to their graves, or just their beds, with a sense of having failed to accomplish all that they could have or wanted to; the emotion is just as applicable to a Japanese bureaucrat as it is to a commuter-belt mainstay stuck in a London borough's civic planning department. Thirdly - and most obviously - it has fallen into the right hands at the right moment, by which I mean that eerie post/mid-pandemic lull where we're all perpetually on the verge of tears anyway, having failed to fully process the events of the past few years. There is no time, we're told; we have work to do, economies to rebuild.
The new film is produced by the ultra-cinephile Woolley-Karlsen pairing; Stephen Woolley's former Palace Pictures cohort Nik Powell gets a posthumous exec-producer credit, and the film may indeed owe its existence to the latter's premature passing. The screenwriter is the hallowed Kazuo Ishiguro, who finds appreciable parallels between the English and Japanese psyches, their shared bent towards sacrifice and duty. The director is the sensitive South African Oliver Hermanus (Beauty), who comes at this material as an outsider, and finds British office life - more specifically, the British office life of the immediate post-War years - to be odder and more drably confounding than typically presented. And the star is Bill Nighy, who just seems to have been waiting for a great legacy role that hasn't been thought up for him by Richard Curtis. This is the first time since 2001's marvellous Lawless Heart that the actor has been called upon to play anything more demanding than Bill Nighy: National Treasure, and the difference is striking, to say the least.
In his first scenes as mid-level planning chief Mr. Williams, Nighy drops his voice and mumbles his lines into his collar, partly because the character knows he has nothing of world-changing import to say (indeed, his desk is where new projects go to die), partly because he's been wearied by decades of paperwork. He's Rob Brydon's Man in a Box made sorry flesh - it's just the box is the suit and tie that will someday provide his funeral garb. (And we realise businessmen everywhere are dressed for their own demise.) Williams has a built-in arc: given six months to live, he commutes anew from despair and denial (suicidal ideation, a lost weekend in Brighton involving another terrific Tom Burke cameo) to acceptance and renewed resolve. Part of the appeal is that we're watching Bill Nighy being returned to something like life, snapped back into shape by a realisation of what he can still achieve and the proximity of Sex Education's Aimee Lou Wood, all colour and cheek as an office girl called Margaret, a defibrillator in human form. (If a man can't perk up around her, then there truly is no hope.)
Gradually, the whole film becomes Nighyesque: angular, eccentric, perfectly tailored to its leading man's peculiar strengths. Living isn't quite the Well-Made British Film it looks, nor as sedate as one might expect; instead, it's all sudden movements and odd, affecting pauses, which may well be what happens when you fashion a miniature from a 143-minute near-classic. That eccentricity is clearest in Living's chancy, structurally bold second half, which assumes a new narrative tack, the better to take fuller measure of its protagonist's perilously narrow existence. Only a master storyteller could zigzag around so without losing the audience or the emotional effect, but then both Ishiguro and Hermanus are less beholden to their source than they are to the singular lifeforce ebbing and flowing front-and-centre of shot. More delicate than Ikiru, Living remains a very human achievement, and it may see out the coming winter as the one awards-season contender you instinctively feel is over far too soon. But such is life.
Living is now playing in selected cinemas.