Living: a lifeless film about living with meaning and purpose

Oliver Hermanus, “Living” (2022)

A gentle if sad and understated film, Oliver Hermanus’s “Living” is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru (“To Live”), this time set in a London recovering from World War II and beset by excess government bureaucracy among other problems. From what I know of “Ikiru” – I haven’t seen this film – this dwelt on a quest to live a life with meaning and purpose, as opposed to merely surviving or living for pleasure. The film is also an indictment of office bureaucracy and the culture and mindset it encourages in people, and of its effects on people’s personal lives and relationships outside the office, especially their lives and relationships with their families.

Veteran civil servant Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy) has long adhered to office protocol and custom as head of the public works department in London – but his life as a cog in the city’s vast bureaucracy has come at a steep personal price for him. On the same day that new employee Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) joins his department, Williams leaves early and visits his doctor for his medical report and receives shattering news that he has only a few months left to live. For the next few days Williams is completely off the rails – going to the seaside and meeting a local layabout (Tom Burke) there, Williams blows his money on drink, parties and strip clubs but finds this way of passing what precious time he has left futile. Returning to London he meets Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), a young woman who worked as the secretary in his department and who now needs a work reference from him for a new job. Drawn to Margaret’s youthfulness and joie de vivre, Williams comes to rely on her and reveals his medical diagnosis to her – which incidentally he is unable to do with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran). While going on an apparent pub crawl with Margaret, Williams suddenly remembers something that was given him at the office just before he left to see his doctor, and a flash of inspiration comes to him. He suddenly finds a reason to go back to work and make something meaningful of his remaining time; in doing so, he enlists the assistance of Peter in his endeavour. 

Removed from its original Japanese context, “Living” still retains some of the values and messages that in the Japanese setting would have resonated very deeply with a Japanese audience: the brief flirtation with a hedonistic life that proves frustrating and meaningless (this part of “Living” actually reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha”, in which the eponymous protagonist pursues a materialist life for a time but becomes disillusioned with it); the demands of work and its effects on individual workers’ lives and their families; and the revelation that Williams suddenly experiences – a revelation that is simple yet profound enough to give his life new purpose and meaning. The film revolves around, and is heavily dependent on, Bill Nighy’s acting which he delivers with understated style. Not usually noted for his singing, he gives an excellent performance as a drunken Williams, overcome by the loss of his wife many years ago, early in the film. The key scene with Harris, in which Williams has his sudden flash of inspiration, is well done for its emotional restraint.

While it is very well made and captures the atmosphere and spirit of early 1950s Britain, the film does follow “Ikiru” very closely in plot (scripted by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro) and does not expand on the earlier film’s themes. If anything, “Living” fails to make more of Williams’s estranged relationship with his son and daughter-in-law, and how that relationship might have been shaped by his wife’s premature death and his work. Indeed, his obsession with work may have been his way of coping with her death but the film does not say if that might have been the case or not. “Living” could have covered themes specific to British and English society in particular: the fact that Williams pursues a project that benefits poor working-class families rather than the class of people he has kowtowed to all his working life, and ruffles upper-class feathers in doing so, is one possibility that Ishiguro could have made more of. A connection could have been made then between the Britain of nearly 70 years ago and the Britain of today, and audiences might ponder on how much or how little Britain has changed over that time.

Nighy delivers an excellent performance and has able support from Wood and Sharp in their crucial roles, but for all the heroic work he does, the film feels too small and restricted in what it says. Its attention to period detail is perhaps too studied for the film, which ends up looking rather lifeless and bland. With its themes of living life with meaning and purpose, and leaving a legacy that benefits future generations even though it is small, the film’s failure to live up to its themes is ironic. Living is what largely eludes the film.