It’s quite a bore, really. This is how Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) refers to the unavoidable fact of his death.
Mr. Williams is a man of no consequence, or so he’s decided. He’s spent his life as a civil servant, wasting his days away at the county Public Works office, an apathetic barrier to the progress of everyday people he has little interest in. Having been lulled into accepting the inefficiency of local government, he sleepwalks through life – not malicious or cruel, but simply a ghost. His life has been boring, why shouldn’t his death be too?
The characterization of death as a bore is the saddest truth in director Oliver Hermanus’ new film “Living” – the only movie you’ll see this year about the soul-sucking nature of municipal work. With a screenplay written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (“Never Let Me Go,” “The Remains of the Day”), “Living” is imbued with Ishiguro’s deft sense of melancholy and tenderness, making the case that the smallest acts of service can make the rut of life worthwhile. Barring reliance on one inadequate framing device, the film succeeds by handling moments that could have easily come across as hackneyed with the utmost subtlety.
Based on Akira Kurosawa’s film “Ikiru” (which is in turn based on Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”), “Living” begins not with Mr. Williams, but with Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp). Mr. Wakeling is boarding the train for his first day at work in Public Works, which he spends eyeing his pretty coworker Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) and leading three women on a wild goose chase as they try to find the right department for their playground petition. In each office, they’re told they must go somewhere else first – to Public Works, to Parks and Recreation, to several other departments, and back to Public Works they go. At the end of their sojourn, Mr. Williams takes their petition and adds it to an ever-growing stack of others, never to be looked at again.
At about this time we leave Mr. Wakeling behind for almost the entirety of the rest of the film. Mr. Williams learns from his doctor he has a terminal illness and has months to live. A change of heart begins to occur.
As Mr. Williams struggles to find meaning in the little life he has left, his journey takes him through three distinct acts, each bolstered by the presence of another character. At the office, the camera frames Mr. Williams as a titan of inefficiency. He looms over his employees, a ghostly presence that causes a hush to fall over whichever room he enters. He’s participating in a broken system, but there’s something sturdy, reliable even, about that brokenness. He is simply operating in the way he’s been taught to by those before him.
But once he leaves the office, and particularly once he learns of his diagnosis, he’s a lost babe in the woods – unsure how to live now that he’s faced with the end. His first attempt involves an impromptu trip to the seaside where he meets Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke), a freewheeling Bohemian type stifled by England’s sense of propriety. The artist takes pity on Mr. Williams and whisks him away for a night on the town. The classical score we’ve heard up until this point turns jazzy and the filmmaking becomes a bit looser, a bit shakier as the two men take on the night.
Nighy’s performance throughout this debauchery is exceedingly reserved, remarkably adept at embodying a man unsure of how to have fun. When he leads a bar in song, he doesn’t choose a sing-along romp of a tune. Instead, he picks a sorrowful Scottish song, and while he starts off with strength, the cracks quickly begin to show. His voice breaks and his body wilts as he begins to fall apart in front of everyone. As the night progresses, Burke begins to take on some of that weight in his own performance. Mr. Sutherland’s vivacity falters as he’s faced with the prospect of death – not in fiction, not in art, but real death – for the first time.
Nighy and Burke give and take with one another beautifully, but the chemistry that really shines through is Nighy’s with Aimee Lou Wood as Miss Margaret Harris. Wood, perhaps best known for playing the charmingly ditzy Aimee on Netflix’s “Sex Education,” sharpens up her charisma in “Living,” serving up a warm wit that plays well off a befuddled Nighy. It’s a well-worn trope – an old man finds the will to live life to the fullest in the energy of a young woman. But the film is aware of the fraught nature of their dynamic, and meets those challenges head on as they come.
From his relationship with Miss Harris, Mr. Williams decides perhaps the best thing he can do is go back to work – but with the intent of actually serving the public this time around. Here, the screenplay could fall into trite cliches about one man’s ability to change a whole system from within. But just when you think that might happen, the film pulls the cunning trick of mixing just a bit of cynicism in with its hope. No, saccharine optimism is not the issue that plagues the final moments of “Living.” What does, is the film’s insistence on returning to Peter Wakeling.
Remember Mr. Wakeling? You’d be forgiven for not. The movie’s shortened third act hinges on his character in a way that back seats the relationship we’ve come to care about the most, that between Miss Harris and Mr. Williams. There’s been no development of a relationship of any sort between Mr. Wakeling and Mr. Williams, so the film’s insistence of beginning and ending things with him grows more confusing as the film goes on. Perhaps there’s a parallel to be made between a career beginning and career ending, but that parallel is nowhere near as strong as it needs to be to close a loop.