Living is a beautifully developed, almost perfect drama about a dying autocrat
who wants to one last good thing before he passes. The film was based on Akira
Kurasawa’s classic film-"Ikiru" which was in turn adopted from Leo Tolstoy’s novella-"The Death of Ivan Ilych". This film differs from the works it was adapted from
because it is very British and the film satirizes both the excess phony
gentility in British society and it also takes Kafka like stabs at modern
corporate culture. Some of the social commentary on the emptiness and dead end
nature of corporate life reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
On the other hand the main theme of getting the most out of the end of your life
makes the film reminiscent of David Lynch’s gorgeous, The Straight Story,
another wonderfully acted drama about the last days of a man’s life (it also
might be the best film Disney ever put out).
This criminally neglected little low budget film, Living (currently playing in
only two Chicagoland theatres) with few viewers managed to garner Oscar
nominations for best actor and best adapted screenplay, but in my opinion it
also deserved nominations for both best director and film.
The star, Bill Nighy is a distinguished stage actor mostly known for his stellar
work in such plays as Pravda, Betrayal, The Seagull and his Tony winning award
for his work in Skylight (2015). He also had roles in films such as Shaun of the
Dead and the Pirates of the Caribbean series., and some Harry Potter films. But
most think he has done his best work on stage.
His character, Mr. Williams, is dignified and shows a very British restraint
playing Mr. Williams who would not call attention to himself if his life
depended on it. When he finally tells a former work mate about his terminal
condition, he totally downplays the whole situation when he says. “ This is
rather a boor, but the doctors have given me six months” as if it were just
another distasteful mundane everyday happening.
Mr. Williams wants to tell his son and daughter in law about his cancer. But
they seem to be barely tolerating his existence, and they are so self-involved
and uncaring that when they keep putting him off, he decides not to tell them at
all. They only time they do react emotionally to anything or show any concern
related to him is when they find out he is spending large amounts of his money
and they are afraid they might lose their inheritance.
The film is s set in stodgy 1950s London where Mr. Williams is in charge of the
Department of Public Works. The men in his office are all dour (except for the
new guy and one woman there) and they all wear almost identical suits and bowler
hats as if they are all part of a fundamentalist cult. One of the men there even
says dryly that the office is a “Bit like a church.”
He gets a lifeline when he meets up with a very free-spirited bohemian fellow
named Sutherland (wonderfully played by Tom Burke) who Mr. Williams calls upon
for a favor. He explains his situation and enlists Sutherland to help him get as
much joy and experience out of his limited life as he can. They go to bars
together, gamble, see music and talk to women but this only seems to cheer up
Williams for a while.
After he stops going to his job regularly, Williams happens upon Miss Harris (Aimme
Lou Wood), formerly the only cheerful member of his firm, and they have dinner.
Whereas he is jaded and weather beaten she is as optimistic, wide eyed and
innocent plus full of life. She confides that her secret nickname for him is Mr.
Zombie They meet up a few times which inspires some gossip and although their
relationship is platonic it is easy to see how he could half fall in love with
The film captures the tedium of government bureaucracy as well as Terry
Gilliam’s Brazil, Employees keep shuffling off forms and requests from
department to department each one trying to avoid and put off responsibility for
doing anything. When Mr. Williams just decides to help a playground, request get
through it is like a major breach of etiquette in an office that tries to do as
little as possible. In one scene when all the employees walk in a circle in a
perfect formation almost identical. This reminded me of a Busby Berkeley scene
but instead of showing the joy in movement it depicts a well-oiled machine
rather than individuals with different qualities.
At this time when so few truly serious films that touch an emotional chord can
get a big theatrical audience, this film deserves some support and attention. I
hope that with the Oscar nominations it reaches the larger audience it deserves. The film
is much more powerful and had a bigger effect on me than most of the better
advertised best pic Oscar noms (Avatar and Top Gun pale in comparison) and it is
right up there with the best of this year’s nominees. In fact, it is better than