‘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…’

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).


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  1. Saw this again tonight and I was struck by how much time the director gives the supporting actors, the suppressed incandescence of the son’s wife at the dinner table, Margaret’s replacement’s state of beweilderment when she is left to guard the ship, every shade and nuance of embarrassment between the son and Margaret at the funeral, the police constable at the end. Everything underated and yet given room to breath.

  2. Ikiru is one of my favourite films, and I wish they wouldn’t remake films that good. I’m going to see this soon but am worried about English Twee Syndrome.

    In Ikiru, Mr. Watanabe is not told by the doctors he has cancer, the information is withheld from him, the idea is that now the state has decided his role is just to die, quietly, without a fight, in ignorance, his usefulness expired.

    It’s this kind of stark existential truth which marks that movie, and that I doubt this remake has the gall to provide anything similar. Which upsets me, I admit. But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

    • I guess having the original notion adapted from Russian culture means that it can be transplanted. But this is steeped in a British world which feels familiar, and rarely evokes the Kurosawa version. The result is not twee, although I can see the hype pushing that angle. Will be interested to hear what you think.

      • Saw it this evening and pretty much as I’d expected, nonsense from beginning to end. The fetishisation of a 50s Britain that never existed, scenes indicating what emotion you should now be feeling rather than actually making you feel them, embarrassingly bad dialogue, important moments like the diagnosis deceit and the local council corruption quietly eradicated, the petty sniping at the Guardian by having one of it’s characters who never gets anything done named Rusbridger, watching it is like wading through sludge it’s pace is so bad. A first-class piece of revisionism that strangles the life out of Kurosawa’s devastating original. Dead on arrival.

        • I stand corrected! Did notice the Rudbridger reference, but thought Ishiguro had a positive history with him. I can quite believe that this Britain never existed, Taft’s pretty much been a staple of most British films. I guess this proves the theory that Kurosawa fans need not apply here…

          • I honestly don’t know how you can remain so consistently in an objective state as a critic, that’s difficult to do, I can only doff my cap to you!

            I would agree about Kurosawa and other arty type directors, except Hermanus has ripped off numerous Hitchcock sequences in this film. The crowds pouring down the stairs from North by Northwest, the conversation by the window from Vertigo, and then of course the shots from Kurosawa himself.

            Is there anything in this film that is original rather than just a collection of other peoples ideas?!

            Anyway, don’t know who I’m arguing with here, myself probably as usual.

            • I guess I can often see what people might or might like about something, and then give it a value that is right for me. It’s a bonus if you think other people will like it to. But I can how Banshees, for example, could be completely obnoxious to someone not in the mood.

              I think I would have hated this Ishiguro when I was younger, but what I saw was about virtues that didn’t have to be associated with one nationality, some kind of nostalgia for some kind of chivalric code. A code that didn’t really exist, but was imagined and acted on. I dug that this was not about British pluck or courage, but about a fear of meaninglessness amongst a generation that had just fought a war. Totally agree about all the quote marks and lifts, but that’s the modern magpie style; I do think they were hung around a narrative that sought to make a connection between different cultures, and wasn’t the old same Hovis advert heritage thing.

              • I don’t see any connection between cultures in the film. It was written by an Anglo-Japanese writer yes, but the storys only venture into ‘that other lot’ territory seemed to be in the exotic dancer and Jamaican bar?

                Bill Nighy mis-cast? Taking away his quirks and eccentricities and you’re left with just a boring actor. To play this kind of low key character you need someone who can do more with it.

                So why cast him? A left wing actor used as a drug gateway into the hearts and minds of liberal England, delivering shots of right-wing politics? Ugh, hasn’t the country had enough of this after god knows how many years?

                OK I’m the kind of person who goes to and clicks straight away for a list of only the rotten reviews, but honestly, this kind of British movie making, along with it’s creeping ilk….. please.

                • Don’t know much about Nighy, but he’s certainly a first name on the team sheet when they want a old school colonial type with a whiff of scandal. But I’ve read a bunch of Ishiguro’s books and never felt there was any right wing ideology. But I think you’re right to imagine that the films success will be read as a triumph for that ideology itself.

                  We might find it easier to appreciate reserve when described in a culture other than our own.

  3. There’s no way you’re going to miss shoehorning any connection to Glasgow into a review is there?

    I’m sure this is very heartfelt and polished, but not my thing.

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