Bill Nighy is a fun, uninhibited actor, but there’s an abashed, melancholy quality to him that hasn’t been fully explored until “Living,” a drama about a senior citizen reckoning with his life.
Nighy became an unlikely star playing a dissolute, clownish old rocker in “Love, Actually,” and he’s been aces in a series of character parts and second leads ever since. You never find unnecessary or inorganic flourishes in his acting: he’s a pro who goes in and gets it done, whatever the role’s parameters. He’s an active listener whose characters seem to be having their own thoughts on everything happening. His unassuming presence makes you feel at least some affection for whomever he’s playing, even if they’re coded as unsympathetic.
The post-World War II London drama “Living” puts Nighy at the center of a story: he plays Williams, the head of the Public Works Department, who receives a terminal health diagnosis and, after a period of shock, begins taking stock in his life and essentially trying to be the best person he can before he goes. It’s a role that calls for subtlety, and director Oliver Hermanus has the right leading man.
Williams is an archetypal figure: a bowler-hatted functionary for the state who’s been doing the same thing and living the same life forever. Nighy is 73, old enough to have grandparents who were adults in the 19th century. He seems to understand from firsthand observations that people of different centuries (or parts of centuries) had different energies and ways of comporting themselves than those born 50 or 100 years later. You can picture Williams as someone for whom automobiles and planes were staggering new developments and who has seen so much change in his life that stability has become increasingly important.
He’s a creature of habit. He takes the train into the city, works, takes the train back home, goes to bed, and repeats. His new boss is ineffective, and the department is largely indifferent to the needs of its employees (a group of female workers is making no headway getting a small playground constructed, and Williams notices but doesn’t intervene). The character has been on rails his whole life. The only female employee of his department, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), calls him “Mr. Zombie.” When his doctor tells him he has only a few more months to live, his response is an unwitting parody of stiff-upper-lip comportment: “Quite.”
“Living” is a loose adaptation/remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (aka “To Live”), a post-World War II drama about a Tokyo bureaucrat who goes on a similar journey after a terminal diagnosis of gastric cancer. “Living” isn’t a great movie—it’s a little too subdued at times and has a tendency to fixate on Williams’ mostly unarticulated sadness—but it’s consistently involving.
And Nighy’s performance is such a marvel of quiet strength and internalized complexity that, even though you’re never in doubt as to how Williams will rise to the occasion of his tragic news (a pub crawl, a relationship with a woman that looks like love to outsiders, a decision to intervene to help others make things happen) the events still feel spontaneous rather than telegraphed.
With its theme of a repressed Englishman deciding to finally let go and live a bit, the movie feels like a holdover from that great run of Merchant-Ivory movies art-house films about repression and roads not taken that became both critical and box-office hits in the 1980s and ’90s: “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Howards End,” and “Remains of the Day.” The latter was based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who has long cited “Ikiru” as a primary influence on his writing, and whose stories of repressed white English people of earlier eras channeled and stood proudly alongside the works of E.M. Forster—and suggested a strange continuity between the ritualized English and Japanese ways of dealing with intense emotion (as well as the mandate to keep sadness to oneself). Ishiguro wrote the screenplay for “Living.”
The result feels like a bridging work between certain types of novels and movies, and two cultures, in much the same way that Kurosawa’s remakes of Shakespeare and other nations’ directors’ remakes of Kurosawa (such as “A Fistful of Dollars”) did so long ago. When people in show business say that cinema speaks a universal language, they’re often pumping themselves up or selling something. But under the right circumstances, the truth of the assertion is undeniable, and movies like this are an example.