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MOVIE | Bill Nighy brilliantly portrays a London bureaucrat whose cancer diagnosis forces him to reckon with mortality

Ross Ferguson/Number 9 Films/Sony Pictures Classics

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➤ Rated PG-13
➤ Theaters

As any writer will tell you, looming deadlines tend to produce clarity and help push through the inertia that’s kept the page blank. Deadlines aren’t pleasant, but without them we’d never get anything done. But what about life itself? It has a deadline, and our mortality looms. The problem is no one knows the exact date when his life comes due. In Living, starring Bill Nighy, main character Mr. Williams gets a firm deadline for his life, which gives this otherwise complacent man clarity and a will to act.

Director Oliver Hermanus works from a screenplay by famed British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. The movie adapts Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a 1952 film about a Japanese bureaucrat who knows he will die of cancer.

Living is set in and around 1950s London where Mr. Williams leads the Department of Public Works at the county building. It’s a somber place in which workers pass file folders from desk to desk all the while casting a deferential eye on Mr. Williams. The goal—as it is with most bureaucracies—is to appear exceedingly busy while studiously avoiding actual work.

But Mr. Williams’ carousel of paper pushing is interrupted when his doctor diagnoses him with c­ancer, giving him just six months to live. He wants to break free from his mundane existence, but he’s afraid he has forgotten how to live.

He takes a holiday, hoping to have some fun before his death, and he meets a young bohemian who takes him on a hedonistic binge. (Their night of carousing earns the film its PG-13 rating.) But the film shows the emptiness of “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” After his encounter with Mr. Williams, the young bohemian seems to question his own lifestyle.

Back in London, Mr. Williams begins spending time with a much younger woman who formerly worked in the Department of Public Works. He’s not interested in romance, but he’s attracted to her joie de vivre. And thanks to his young friend, Mr. Williams has an epiphany: Living isn’t about personal satisfaction but about finding one’s purpose in helping others.

Hermanus has created a beautiful film filled with moments of poignancy. He doesn’t rush the story, allowing the characters to inhabit long pauses that draw us into Mr. Williams’ deliberations concerning the short time he has left. Ishiguro’s script, for which he received an Oscar nomination, is tight, perhaps better than Kurosawa’s original, and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s score enriches the melancholy—yet hopeful—story.

It’s certainly the best performance I’ve seen in the last year.

By far, the best thing about Living is Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Williams. He captures Mr. Williams’ stern austerity with a slight hardening about the eyes. He communicates the depths of Mr. Williams’ bureaucratic malaise with a laconic “That will do” or “We can keep it here”—the audience knows Mr. Williams won’t let productivity get in the way of his paperwork.

When Nighy’s Mr. Williams describes his death sentence as “such a bore,” our hearts ache for this man who seems embarrassed by his own mortality. Of course, the cancer diagnosis changes Mr. Williams, but Nighy plays the change close. He isn’t so much angry at God as he is quietly confused, trying to solve the puzzle of how to live in the face of death. Nighy brilliantly pulls off the eventual transformation from ­confusion to clarity. He avoids the temptation to alter Mr. Williams’ personality. Mr. Williams is the same man, but he overcomes the inertia that plagued him, allowing him finally to live in a manner consistent with his position and gifts. Nighy’s performance has earned him an Academy Award nomination—it’s certainly the best performance I’ve seen in the last year.

Life is a gift, and death is our enemy. But Living suggests the knowledge of death becomes a gift for the protagonist, allowing him to truly live in the end, rather than continue in a living death of meaningless activity. The film acts as a memento mori reminding us of our ultimate looming deadline and ­providing some clarity so we can push through the inertia, living a life that blesses others.

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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