Living is the story of an elderly joyless man who discovers he has limited time. Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) serves as the manager of a small department within Britain’s Public Works division during 1953. Most people in his life find Mr. Williams’ gruff demeanor off-putting including his son, daughter-in-law, and coworkers. When Mr. Williams discovers he has a fatal illness, he decides to change his life to make the most of what remains. This includes initiating a friendship with work colleague Miss Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) and finishing a longstanding community project he’s dodged for many years.
What works in Living is Nighy’s gentleness and thematic exploration of life’s finality. Nighy imbues Mr. Williams a warm subtlety that will endear nearly everyone. What makes Williams compelling is that he’s not mean or rough, but he is cold and distant at the start of his journey. Upon the central revelation, Williams doesn’t turn on a dime—although he does try with some humorous results. Instead, director Oliver Hermanus (Beauty, Moffie) presents a fascinating dichotomous arc where Mr. Williams wants to accomplish things with alacrity given his personal time constraints, but their character necessitates quiet, patient resolve. The clearest example of this is when an ally inquires of him, “Aren’t you angry, Mr. Williams?” to which he replies with a soft smile, “I haven’t got time to get angry.” Nighy’s manner of calm and expression present a fascinating and engaging portrayal of how people face mortality in different ways.
Audiences who don’t enjoy films about grim topics, or that move at leisurely pace, may not enjoy Living as much as others. The tone and speed of Living very much echoes its message: be deliberate in one’s actions as to maximize positive impact. As such, some may find this particular’s character journey a bit slow as Hermanus allows the audience to enjoy Nighy’s performance, particularly the non-verbal moments. Furthermore, the motif of impending death (while presented in a positive light) might be uncomfortable for some despite the filmmakers’ clear intention of focusing on the good amidst the inevitable.
Living is a fantastic adaptation of a familiar tale. Credit should be given to its source materials—most notably the Leo Tolstoy novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and previous cinematic interpretation Ikiru by the great Akira Kurosawa. But here, Hermanus and Nighy breathe new life into the story thanks to a fantastic updated script and performance.
Recommended if you Enjoyed: About Time, A Man Called Otto,
Living is available most major streaming platforms as of January 20th, 2023.