Bill Nighy is a marvel in this contemplative drama, which deservedly earned the British actor his first-ever Oscar nomination.
March 16, 2023
Two decades ago, Bill Nighy won two BAFTAs in the same year for vastly dissimilar roles: for playing a rock 'n' roll singer belting out a cheesy Christmas tune in Love Actually, and also for his turn as a journalist investigating a political scandal in gripping miniseries State of Play. The beloved British actor has achieved plenty more across his career, including collecting an eclectic resume that spans an uncredited turn in Black Books, a pivotal part in Shaun of the Dead, and everything from Underworld and Pride to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (plus stepping into David Bowie's shoes in the TV version of The Man Who Fell to Earth). Somehow, though, Nighy made it all the way into his 70s before receiving a single Oscar nomination. He didn't emerge victorious at 2023's ceremony for Living, but his recognition for this textured drama isn't just a case of the Academy rewarding a stellar career — it's thoroughly earned by one of the veteran talent's best performances yet.
Nighy comes to this sensitive portrayal of a dutiful company man facing life-changing news with history; so too does the feature itself. Set in London in 1953, it's an adaptation several times over — of iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru, and of Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which the former also takes inspiration from. That's quite the lineage for Living to live up to, but Nighy and director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) are up to the task. The movie's second Oscar-nominee, Nobel Prize-winning screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, unsurprisingly is as well. Also the author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, he's at home penning layered stories with a deep focus on complicated characters not being completely true to themselves. When those two novels were turned into impressive pictures, Ishiguro didn't script their screenplays, but he writes his way through Living's literary and cinematic pedigree like he was born to.
A man of no more words than he has to utter — of no more of anything, including life's pleasures, frivolities, distractions and detours, in fact — Williams (Nighy, Emma.) is a born bureaucrat. Or, that's how he has always appeared to his staff in the Public Works Department in London County Hall, where he's been doing the same job day, week, month and year in and out. He's quiet and stoic as he pushes paper daily, overseeing a department that's newly welcoming in Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp, The Trial of the Chicago 7). It's through this fresh face's eyes that Living's audience first spies its central figure, adopting his and the wider team's perspective of Williams as a compliant and wooden functionary: a view that the film and its sudden diagnosis then challenges, as Williams does of himself.
As Ikiru was as well, and as The Death of Ivan Ilyich's name made so apparent, this is a tale of a man dying — and, while confronting that fact, finally living. In Hermanus and Ishiguro's hands, sticking close to Kurosawa and his collaborators before them, this story gets part of its spark from a simple request by local parents for a playground. Before learning that he has terminal cancer, Williams behaves as he always has, with the women making their plea sent from department to department while he does only as much as he must. Afterwards, grappling with how to capitalise upon the time he has left, he wonders how to leave even the smallest mark on the world. Living isn't about a big, impulsive response to one of the worst developments that anyone can ever be saddled with during their time on this mortal coil, except that it is in Williams' own way; when your reaction to hearing that you have mere months left to live is "quite", any break from routine is radical.
This isn't a cancer weepie, not for a second. It also isn't an illness-focused film where someone's health struggles come second to the feelings and changes experienced by those around them. Williams' colleagues notice his absence when he stops showing up to the office, of course. One, the young Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood, Sex Education), accompanies him on unexpected away-from-work outings and advises that she'd nicknamed him 'Mr Zombie'. Living is about those instances — the fancy lunches that Williams treats himself to, the nights out drinking with new pals (Tom Burke, The Wonder) he never would've contemplated before, the flouting of his lifelong monotonous routine, and the efforts to go above and beyond that he's now willing to take — rather than about an ailing man's family and acquaintances facing loss. Indeed, given that Williams doesn't want to interrupt his son (Barney Fishwick, Call the Midwife) and daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran, Mothering Sunday) with his condition, Living is firmly invested in someone navigating their swansong on their own terms.
At the heart of this ruminative film, and Williams' post-diagnosis behaviour, sits one of the most fundamental existential questions there is. Knowing that death is looming so soon and so swiftly, what can possibly provide comfort? That's a query we all face daily, most of us just on a longer timeline — context that makes Williams' way of coping both resonant and highly relatable. Life is filling each moment with anything but reminders that our here and now is fleeting, albeit not in such a conscious and concerted manner. Living's boxed-in imagery, constrained within Academy-ratio frames and gifted a handsome, period-appropriate but almost-wistful sheen by Hermanus' Moffie and Beauty cinematographer Jamie Ramsay (also the director of photography on See How They Run), helps visually express a crucial feeling: of being anchored within a set amount of space and discovering how to make the most of it.
When Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo and Ran great Kurosawa stepped through this terrain, he did so with one of his frequent players: Takashi Shimura. There's a particular sense of potency in telling this tale with a familiar figure, as Nighy also is, hammering home how truly universal this plight is no matter the specifics. Nighy's performance toys with what viewers have come to know and expect from him, however. He's in reserved rather than twinkling and instantly charming mode — still, muted and melancholy, too — a facade for his character that says oh-so-much about the dedicated life that Williams has weathered, the solace he's found in it, his handling of his current situation and also the film's post-World War II setting. Conveying the difference between being and relishing so effortlessly and also so heartbreakingly, Nighy is a marvel, and one that the movie around him lives for.
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