Review by Cole Groth
2022 is the year of big performances. From Austin Butler’s bombastic portrayal of the most influential rock star of all time in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis to Michelle Yeoh’s excellent adventure as an aging Chinese immigrant who can jump across the multiverse in Everything Everywhere All at Once, we’ve seen many actors do their best at their absolute most. In the mix of these big films, it might be easy to overlook Bill Nighy’s soulful portrayal of a dying man looking for a change in his life. With the upcoming Academy Awards nominations in January, you would be unwise to miss one of the year's best performances in Oliver Hermanus’s Living.
Set in a post-war 1953 London, Living is an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru. Similar to its predecessor, Hermanus weaves a tale of a bureaucrat who searches for meaning in his life after he’s given a terminal diagnosis. It explores the inefficiency of bloated government organizations and how powerfully our seemingly ordinary interactions with others have a significant impact on the lives of others. Instead of taking place in Japan, this story moves to Britain, which feels like a perfect change for this remake.
Nighy’s performance as Williams is almost as devastatingly powerful as the diagnosis he’s given. Williams only has a few months to live, meaning he has to make the most of a life he’s spent without a thirst for something bigger. He subtly delivers every line with so much precision that he feels exactly like the role he’s portraying. His mannerisms are those of an older man who’s grown jaded with his life. It’s refreshingly realistic and profound. Opposite aside him is an incredible Aimee Lou Wood. Since Williams has to make the most out of the rest of his life, he chooses his companionship with a much younger woman with some pep in her step. Wood is excellent for this role because her wide eyes seem like she’s always searching for the best in a person. The two perfectly juxtapose each other and allow for several brilliant scenes of generational knowledge being passed back and forth.
For a production without an enormous budget, it’s awe-striking how great the production design is. From the very first frame to the final one, you’re transported into the early ‘50s and feel wholly engrossed in the silent beauty of past generations. The perfect sets and costume design will almost go unnoticed because a certain level of realism (that all films should strive for) is achieved here, making you forget you’re watching a movie. It allows us to focus on each conversation and feel like the fly on the wall for many different people. In addition to the brilliant design of the world, we’re treated to one of the best scores of the year, composed by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch. The beauty of her piano underscores each scene with a quiet sensitivity. Even without considering the rest of the film, the production alone is worthy of a watch.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s adaptation of Kurosawa’s script is splendid. Like Hermanus and Nighy, the writing exercises great restraint to ensure that each moment is as important as the last. Nighy plays a Dickensian character. While he doesn’t go through as much of a transformation as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Ishiguro gives us the satisfaction of watching a man obtain positive growth. The script also fantastically portrays the government’s inefficiency, which feels remarkably prescient in our modern era. The first fifteen minutes show us a group of women trying to install a public playground in their town, only to be shuffled from department to department, being told that each subsequent bureaucrat will be able to help them. Scenes like these are what give this film so much character. When we aren’t being saddled with what could be a tremendously depressing story, we see exciting scenes of the other characters involved in Williams’s life.
Living manages to sport one of the best performances of the year in a year where we’ve seen many excellent actors give all-time best portrayals. Nighy gives it all and is supported by a brilliant team of talented creatives behind him. Living is one of the year’s best films with excellent direction from Oliver Hermanus, beautiful set design, and an excellent script. It deserves all the love it can get into the upcoming awards season.
Living is now playing in theaters.