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Sleekly sentimental, 'Living' plays like an 'Afterschool Special' for grownups

Bill Nighy plays a bottled-up bureaucrat who embarks on a quest for meaning in <em>Living</em>.
Sony Pictures
Bill Nighy plays a bottled-up bureaucrat who embarks on a quest for meaning in Living.

When historians look back on the COVID-19 years, they'll be struck by how those many months of anxiety and social distancing led countless people to ask themselves big existential questions: Have I been doing the work I really want to do? Have I been living the way I really want to live? Or have I been simply coasting as my life passes by?

These questions lie at the heart of Oliver Hermanus' Living, a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film Ikiru, which means "to live" in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he's spent the last 30 years of his life.

Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a widower in charge of a local government department that approves public projects like parks for children, a Kafkaesque system in which nothing ever gets done. Trapped in bowler-hatted, besuited monotony, the all-but silent Mr. Williams is sleepwalking through life until, one day, his doctor gives him a death sentence. This rouses him from his lethargy, and sends him off on a quest for meaning.

At a seaside resort he meets a local novelist — that's Tom Burke, of Strike fame — who takes him out carousing. But that's not what he needs. Then he grows obsessed with his only female employee — played by chipper Aimee Lou Wood — whose appeal is not her sexuality but an effortless, upbeat vitality that's a counterpoint to his quietness. Her nickname for Mr. Williams is "Mr. Zombie," a moniker whose justice he doesn't deny. Her embrace of life inspires him to redeem his remaining days by doing good works. Everybody in the theater can predict whether or not he'll succeed — we've seen this story before, indeed Ikiru set the template — yet his fate is touching, anyway.

Now, there's a lot of skill on display in Living. From Mr. Williams' suits, to the nifty décor, to the font in the credits, 1950s London is lovingly recreated in a way that had my screening companions cooing with delight. And who doesn't love Nighy? Although he's better, I think, when he's more fun, his quiet, deeply internal performance captures a man who, with grace and bone-dry humor, peels off his mummy's bandages and comes alive.

So given all this, why do I find the film disappointing? It's not simply that it's a remake and I'm a stickler for originality. Heck, Ikiru itself was inspired by Tolstoy's great 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

But when Kurosawa made his film, he didn't tell exactly the same story as Tolstoy and didn't simply move it from 1880s St Petersburg to 1880s Tokyo. He reconceived the plot and set the action at the time he was living, a 1950s Tokyo still ravaged by World War II. Though it tells a universal story about finding meaning in the face of death, Kurosawa's film crackles with the urgency of its historical moment, which in Japan's era of rebuilding, had a desperate need to believe that even the most ordinary person — a paper-pusher — had the capacity for heroism and nobility.

Rather than retool things for the present, the film sinks into Britain's boundless obsession with its past.

Alas, Ishiguro's adaptation lacks the same inventiveness and urgency. It seems more like a deftly edited transposition than the artistic rethinking I expected from a Nobel prize winner whose fiction I admire. Rather than retool things for the present, the film sinks into Britain's boundless obsession with its past.

Dwelling on period details, Living feels distant from the textures of today's fast-paced, Brexit-battered, multicultural London where a 2022 Mr. Williams might well be of East Asian or Caribbean descent. The messiness of life never busts in. As with too many British dramas, the action takes place in a safely-stylized England, a museum diorama in which even life and death can't really touch us. Low-key and muted, Hermanus' direction doesn't catch the desperation and sadness that gave Kurosawa's original film its emotional power, especially in its transcendent finale set in the snow, one of the most beautiful and moving climaxes in movie history.

Rather than shake us to our core like Ikiru, Living teaches us a life lesson we can all agree on. It's like an Afterschool Special for grownups — a very good one, mind you. But still.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.