Bill Nighy’s Stiff Upper Lip Slips in the Lovely, Understated “Living”

It’s much easier to sleepwalk through life than many people will admit.

When you find a routine that makes you feel safe, what incentive is there to disrupt it? Yes, a risk or challenge can be exciting. But life, and its many responsibilities, obligations, and roadblocks, tends to favor the less bold. So, you stick with it, follow the patterns you always have, and regard the detours and their unknowns with a skeptical eye.

That is the life of Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) up to the start of Living. It is post-World War II London, and everyone is still picking up the pieces. Williams leads the Public Works department of the London City Council, responsible for doling out funds to rebuild the city. He appears perfectly fine with his life: commuting from the suburbs, bouncing fund applications to other equally disinterested departments, and sharing a lonely house with his son and daughter-in-law. Williams’ existence is disrupted when he learns he has terminal cancer and has six months to live. Faced with his imminent death, Williams embarks on an odyssey to find what he lost long ago: fun, mystery, companionship, and, to everyone’s surprise, his humanity.

Adapted from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, Living is a twin meditation on the meaning of life and the damning limits of bureaucracy. It is a tricky balance when you glance at the seemingly tenuous ties between them. At the least, a dying man seeking final fulfillment appears to offer more emotional possibilities. Director Oliver Meranus, working with a splendid screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, tightly knits the themes together. He gently reveals how Williams’ gentlemanly routine zaps his vitality by framing him within shadows or in splintered vantages. In tandem, we see its contribution to the bureaucratic process, where flattened civil servants neglect desperate communities stuck in limbo. It’s a damningly passive cycle, but Meranus approaches it from a place of empathy for its active participants.

Bill Nighy in Living (Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics)

Naturally, Living has some uneven moments as it works through that cycle. The film is most resonant in Williams’ search for purpose in life. Meranus gets plenty of mileage in the first two acts from the “fish out of water” feel of Williams’ adventures, first in a late-night alcohol-fueled haze with Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke) and then with Miss Harris (a brilliant Aimee Lou Wood). There is true joy there, but underneath each interaction, a melancholic current splits through the surface. Williams’ Scottish ballad might’ve been inspired by liquid courage, but his crystal-clear, plaintive tone aches with heartbreak and longing. Williams’ encounters are so fascinating that it’s disappointing when Meranus montages much of them, leaving what’s unheard to our imaginations. (That isn’t to say all the montages don’t work; Meranus’ artful array of Williams’ childhood memories is stunning.)

In comparison, the film’s jaunts back to the Public Works office and Williams’ colleagues don’t land with the same weight. Williams’ (and Nighy’s) absence leaves a hole, and you can’t help wishing, unironically, we had more time with him. (Meranus could’ve spared an additional scene to explore Williams’ relationship with his distant son.) In the final act, when the inevitable occurs, Meranus achieves emotional cohesion. Through another affecting montage, he links how Williams’ last experiences transformed his approach to life and work, setting a quiet but powerful example as a parting gift. Unfortunately, his colleagues choose the status quo over internalizing that gift. It would be gutting if not for the realization that Williams ultimately found what he was looking for, and people saw him.

Bill Nighy in Living (Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics)

It’s impossible not to see or feel for Mr. Williams with Bill Nighy as his vessel. Living wouldn’t be the same with Nighy’s gently shattering performance; he is indispensable. He carries a lifetime of monotony and flattened expectations in his voice, face, and how he moves. He is a tightly-wound coil worn down at the sides. Your heart goes out to him, but Nighy doesn’t inspire pity. His presence invites you in, taking you by the hand on Williams’ journey. You smile when he smiles and laughs when he chuckles. Even at his most wistful, Nighy exudes a heart-pulsing warmth. It might be 2022’s most understated performance; it is undoubtedly one of the loveliest.

Sleepwalking through life is safe. You limit personal harm by going through the motions, or at least that’s what we claim. Living makes a compelling case for why we shouldn’t. Together, Meranus and Nighy show us what we lose when we sleepwalk through life, and it’s heartbreaking in its power. What’s even more powerful is the joy we receive and share when we engage in living, risks and all. If an older British gentleman can do it in the twilight of his life, there’s hope for everyone.

All you have to do is wake up.

Living is currently playing in select theaters.

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