A movie with a rich pedigree tells a believable story of hope
I had been meaning to see the British drama Living for some time, but it was only when I arrived at the theater that I learned the screenplay was by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazou Ishiguro—and that the film is a remake of the Akiro Kurosawa 1952 film Ikiru. The initial draw for me was Bill Nighy, a consistently excellent British actor who has been nominated for Best Actor in this year’s Oscar race. But this pedigree raised my hopes for the film significantly. I’m happy to report those hopes were rewarded—and that it got me rethinking something I’ve been a little too rigid about.
The basic plot of the original and the remake is simple enough: an aging widower in the early 1950s is diagnosed with a terminal illness and it leads him to reconsider the way he is living his life. Ishiguro is a Japanese native who moved to Britain as a child, and demonstrates an exceptionally deft understanding of the English on English terms, perhaps because of its parallels in Japanese culture. The sense of diffident understatement that has traditionally been so central to British identity has often been mocked (or worse), and Ishiguro is certainly aware of it—indeed, it lies at the heart of his 1989 tragic masterpiece The Remains of the Day (also made into a very good 1992 movie). But at its best, this diffidence has a sense of unflappable integrity of the keep-calm-and-carry-on variety that is not without its comic subtext. This vein of humor is mined for subtly satisfying effect in the film’s opening sequence, which captures a suburban commuting culture in which a new employee, the aptly named Wakeling (Alex Sharp), fails to read the “room” of the train platform on his first day of work. But—and this goes to the heart of the film’s ethos—his new colleagues are not angry or contemptuous, but gently steer him toward getting on track, whereupon he becomes the moral center of gravity for his peers.
That’s what I liked so much about this movie: the way it credibly captures common decency in the fabric of everyday life. It’s not something that one can take for granted, and indeed, revealing its shallowness, non-existence, or as a veil for concealed murderousness has become something of a cliche in elite circles (see: Don’t Worry Darling). But Living suggests that goodness is a living force that holds its own among others as we try to navigate our way toward meaning, which is more than enough of a challenge for most of us.
It certainly is for Williams (Nighy). We meet him as a not-unkind functionary in a government bureaucracy who is expert at passing the buck—or, if tactically desirable, deep-sixing proposals like that for a children’s playground pushed by a set of women reformers. But his diagnosis hits him like a 2x4, and he goes AWOL from his job, drifting into an English seaside town where he meets Talbot (Jamie Wilkes), an underachieving aesthete who declines an opportunity to bilk Williams but allows him to fund a good time as Talbot understands it. This set-piece is followed by another involving Williams and an effervescent young female employee he supervises named Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood of Sex Education fame) whom he meets on the street in Piccadilly Circus. There are suspicions about his intentions—and Miss Harris herself wonders about them, less because she’s concerned about lechery than his emotional state. This prompts a lovely soliloquy from Williams, who describes a dream of becoming a gentleman and the price he paid for achieving it. Now, as he tries to make sense of his life with a son and daughter-in-law who seem incapable of seeing or hearing him, he gropes his way to break the habits of a lifetime and make a small contribution to the welfare of the world.
In an important sense, however, Living is less about Williams than it is the people around him, and indeed the story continues (a little longer than it should have) after his death. Various characters testify to their intention to carry on his work, but while spirits are willing, flesh generally proves weak. Ishiguro, whose more recent work focuses on the challenge of human loneliness amid the relentless march of technology, refuses to be a sentimentalist. But he knows that cynicism can be no less a form of naïveté.
For me, the lasting lesson of Living is its assertion about the possibilities for personal change. In recent pieces (here and here) I have emphasized the force of temperament in shaping individual destinies. But I suspect I have sold short the capacity of at least some of us to truly change our minds—and actions. And even if I’m right that we can’t change our essential selves, we may not always know with perfect clarity who those selves are and how much room for adaptation there may be in a given set of circumstances. My wife, long a skeptic of my skepticism, pointed out this to me before she even read my last piece. Which just goes to show that you need other people to figure out who, and where, you are in the business of living.