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Learning how to live


WORLD Radio - Learning how to live

Living tells the story of a bureaucrat who learns he’s dying of cancer

Bill Nighy accepts the international star award for an actor for "Living" at the 34th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala. Associated Press/Photo by Chris Pizzello

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, January 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: It's Oscar season.

Academy Award nominees were announced this week. But as is often the case, a supposedly award-worthy movie isn’t necessarily any good.

BROWN: Here’s Collin Garbarino with some thoughts about a few films that might or might not be worth watching.

COLLIN GARBARINO: You should always do your homework before queuing up awards films. Everything Everywhere All at Once was an unexpected hit with both critics and fans, and it garnered more nominations than any other film this year. It’s sort of like an over-the-top interdimensional kung-fu family dramedy. That might sound fun, and in some ways it is well made. But I can’t recommend it. It has some very crude moments and the worldview is exceedingly nihilistic.

One nominee to avoid at all costs is The Whale which features Brendan Fraiser playing a 600-pound recluse. In every way, it’s one of the most awful movies I’ve ever seen.

But an awards film I think you shouldn’t overlook is called Living, and it expands to more theaters this weekend.

Living is an adaptation of Ikiru—Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film about a Japanese bureaucrat who learns he’s dying of cancer. British writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s script has been nominated for best adapted screenplay. And Bill Nighy’s been nominated for best actor for his portrayal of the film’s protagonist, Mr. Williams.

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. The goal—as it is with most bureaucracies—is to appear exceedingly busy while studiously avoiding actual work.

MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. Wakely what may I do for you?

MR. WAKELING: The ladies’ petition, sir. Mr. Harvey at cleansing insists that this is for us after all.

MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. Harvey is quite wrong. But we can keep it here. There’s no harm. Thank you, Mr. Wakeling.

But Mr. Williams’ carousel of paper pushing is interrupted when his doctor diagnoses him with cancer, giving him just six months to live.

DOCTOR: Mr. Williams. Please, sit down.

MR. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

DOCTOR: The results have come back. I’m afraid this time, they’re pretty conclusive. [long pause] It’s never easy this.


Mr. Williams 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.”

MR. WILLIAMS: You see my problem. I withdrew this cash and came down here to enjoy myself or live a little, as you put it. But I realize I don’t know how.

Back in London, Mr. Williams begins spending time with a much younger woman named Miss Harris who formerly worked in the Department of Public Works.

MISS HARRIS: Mr. Williams! Mr. Williams! Oh! Oh, it is you! I was quite thrown there for a minute, I mean by your, by your new hat.

MR. WILLIAMS: I lost my old one.

MISS HARRIS: It’s jolly nice. I do wonder what they’ll make of it at the office.

MR. WILLIAMS: Yes, I wonder.

He’s not interested in romance, but he’s attracted to her vitality. Thanks to this young friend, Mr. Williams realizes living isn’t about personal satisfaction, rather it’s about finding one’s purpose in helping others.

It’s a beautiful film filled with moments of poignancy. The story doesn’t hurry—long pauses draw us into Mr. Williams’ worry about the short time he has left. Ishiguro’s script is tight, perhaps better than Kurusawa’s original, and the film’s score enriches the melancholy, yet hopeful story.

But by far, the best thing about Living is Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Williams. We feel the character’s stern austerity in Nighy’s slight hardening of the eyes. He perfectly communicates the depths of Mr. Williams’ bureaucratic malaise. And our hearts ache for this man who seems embarrassed by his own mortality.

MR. WILLIAMS: Look here. There’s something I want to show you, but… It’s um… It’s a bit of a bore, really.

Of course, the cancer diagnosis changes Mr. Williams, but Nighy plays the change close. For most of the movie, he’s all quiet confusion, and Nighy’s eventual transformation from bewilderment to clarity is brilliant.

MR. WILLIAMS: I wonder if you ever stop on the way home and watch the children play. And when the time comes and their mothers call them in they get a little contrary, but that’s as it should be. Far better that than to be the child you occasionally see sitting by himself in the corner not taking part. Merely waiting for his mother to call him. I’ve become afraid that I might end up like that child. And I so very much do not wish to do so.

Nighy avoids the temptation to alter Mr. Williams’ personality after his epiphany. He’s the same man, yet different, allowing him to live his final days well. It's 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 can become a gift. Facing his mortality saves Mr. Williams from a living death of meaningless activity. The film acts as a “memento mori” reminding us of our own mortality and challenging us to live a life that blesses others.

I’m Collin Garbarino.

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