Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is one of the best films ever made and a personal favorite of mine. Beyond the trappings of an open march to the grave is a celebration of life and its meaning, however you find that and as long as it truly fulfills you. The director may only be remembered for his samurai epics but it’s this ode to The Death of Ivan Ilyich that cemented the legendary Japanese director as one of the all-time greats, versatile and focused with each piece and yet never so full of clarity as he was in Ikiru. Remaking that seminal work would be ill-advised, bold, and potentially devastating.
Oliver Hermanus has tried (and largely succeeded) with a beautiful but sleepy script from British writer Kazuo Ishiguro.
Living, like its predecessor, follows an elderly British bureaucrat that discovers he has stomach cancer. Realizing that he has done little with his life, Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy) embarks on a journey through excess, substance abuse, idealized youth, and even job fulfillment as he tries to feel alive in his final months. The film premiered at Sundance 2022 and I have been waiting (checks notes) one full calendar year to watch this thing. I worried that the anticipation might ruin the final product when I finally got to see it, but I’m happy to report that this remake is absolutely beautiful despite being a bit overly familiar.
There’s little to surprise in this updated version of Kurosawa’s masterwork. It’s nigh-on one-to-one from the original story, cleverly and carefully transported to Britain by Ishiguro’s deft hand. The Never Let Me Go author has made necessary changes (“Gondola no Uta” would not sound the same coming out of Nighy as it did Takashi Shimura) and adhered when he has to, but the result is a mildly different tone that vibes quite nicely with his work for Merchant/Ivory. His changes are cultural, transporting the story not out of time but from one culture to another in the wake of the second world war and making a meal out of ignoring that crucial bit of history. Kurosawa kept most of that in the background as well but there was a sense of impending sadness, dread, and fear underlying almost every frame of Japanese cinema (at least what made it to the west and what I grew up with) from that time period.
Nighy shows a very deft hand in navigating this story from Japan to 1950s Britain. The actor has long been able to handle comedic performances, drama, and has even shown himself capable of handling action roles, but this turn is one of his quietest. The innate sadness and determination he shows, even in Rodney’s confusion and fear, requires a careful and measured performance that the actor lives up to. He’s delightfully paired with Sex Education‘s Aimee Lou Wood, a young woman full of vibrance and life that has leapt from the British Netflix comedy to the big screen and brings a delightful, sweet sincerity to this role that was previously more confused and awkward. in the hands of Miki Odagiri. Wood’s work with Nighy provides some much-needed levity to every scene she’s in, moving from jokes about William’s half-dead status to quiet tears in a pub booth without breaking a sweat.
Each bit of this lovely film was captured by Jamie D. Ramsay (She Will, See How They Run), utilizing the London County Hall backdrop (while the film utilized a generous donation from the County Hall arts fund) and embracing the classic, old-world feel of modern London. Much of the city feels out of time, connected to a past that’s not too far off but enough that we might start to forget, but Ramsay captures it with loving clarity. It helps to have Nighy mid-frame throughout nearly the whole picture, as his stately elder-gent aura brings gravitas to what might otherwise feel anachronistic, but the adoring way the city is photographed really adds to the cultural shift from Japan to Britain.
Too sleepy for some, too precious for others, Living might have quite a time finding an audience in a modern world. Its sensibilities are too quaint for many, too stuffy, and yet there’s beauty to the idea that the smallest action of dedication and care can shift perspective. There are plenty of ways to live, but for some it’s merely sitting in a small but impactful accomplishment, quietly singing your favorite song and staring the spectre of death in the face, and loving life for every minute you have it. Oliver Hermanus has done a beautiful job recreating one of the greatest films in the medium’s history, carefully transposing it with Ishiguro to create something familiar, new, and respectfully separate.
Living has finally been released in select theatres.