Having cut his teeth in various occupations including being a community worker in Renfrew, near Glasgow, author Kazuo Ishiguro has a gift for evocative intensity without melodrama. The author of The Remains of the Day, a great film but an even better book, is one of the driving forces behind Living, a period drama set in 1953 Britain that’s an automatic awards-season self-starter in multiple categories, not least best actor for Bill Nighy. Very much the Harry Styles for the over 70’s, Nighy is something of a UK national treasure based on many roles including vampire elder Viktor in Underworld; Rise of the Lycans, but Nighy exceeds even that with his career-best work here.
So back to 1953 we go, with a retro credit sequence that evokes the period with great skill; we’re heading into that peculiarly British world of ‘treacle sponges’ and ‘decent mince’, and Ishiguro is always on point with the dialogue. But the idea for Living comes from a 1952 Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru, which itself took inspiration from Tolstoy. Working with director Olivier Hermanus, Ishiguro focuses on Mr Williams (Nighy), an aging civil-servant who discovers that he has months to live. But this isn’t a sentimental story in the sense you might fear, and the details of Mr Williams’ illness are largely restricted to a brief glimpse of a bloody handkerchief after a coughing attack.
Instead, we widen focus to look at those affected by Williams’s potentially sharp exit, fellow employees including newbie Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp), and Margaret (Aimie Lou Wood), a personable young woman with whom Williams strikes up a friendship with. There’s also Mr Sutherland (Tom Burke), an insomniac dilettante to whom Williams generously donates some sleeping pills; are such acts of kindness enough for Williams to have made any mark on this world?
“I’ve had a wonderful life,’ sighs Williams, but on this evidence, he hasn’t at all. ‘All I ever wanted was to be a gentleman,’ he complains, but the notion of merging in with the other bowler-hatted types on the workday train-platform doesn’t provide the sense of social satisfaction he seeks. As a film, Living reaches back into Williams’ past through brief flashback, but also takes in the minute details of his present, urgent search for meaning in post WWII Britain. His goal proves hard to win; Margaret imagines the old man is infatuated with her, but his admiration for her is not possessive or sexual; when his glance lingers on her, it’s because what he wants is to be ‘alive like that, if just for one day.’
Living might sound like hard going, but it’s not; it’s a sprightly, piercing look at a search for meaning that most of us share. Just because he’s old and mummified doesn’t mean that Williams isn’t experiencing anything other than what’s universal, he’s just at the tail end of his search. The details are endlessly rewarding, from Williams singing The Rowan Tree in a state of inebriation ‘(I’ve had a little scotch’ he demurs) to Margaret’s description of the in-tray ‘skyscrapers’ on the workplace desks, a tiny monologue that carries so much truth about how life in the UK works. Living allows Ishiguro to nail something about the British sense of identity that, for once, is far from the usual nationalist or royalist sentiment, but a firm moral about how we treat each other and ourselves. With a moving, positive, perfectly modulated coda and a towering performance from Nighy, ably supported by Sharp and Wood, it’s probably the most effective attempt to evoke a sense of British identity since Dunkirk (the Chris Nolan film rather than the battle itself).