Rarely does a film arrive in theaters with a lineage of creators as highly pedigreed (and as long) as that of Living. The story, that of a successful bureaucrat looking back over his life in light of a fatal diagnosis, was originally penned by Leo Tolstoy in the form of his 1886 novella The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy is of course the highly lauded author of Russian masterpieces War And Peace and Anna Karenina as well. Ivan Ilyich was then adapted by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa into Ikiru, which some claim to be the best film in his impressive roster of films that includes Seven Samurai and Ran. Ikiru was in turn adapted into English as Living by Nobel and Booker Prize winner Sir Kazuo Ishiguro. Two of his acclaimed novels, Never Let Me Go and The Remains Of The Day, have been adapted into award-winning films, with the latter receiving eight Oscar nominations. And thus, Living arrived at Sundance last winter boasting a list of ancestors more illustrious than Prince Harry’s.
This latest iteration of Ivan Ilyich (in select theaters December 23) stars Bill Nighy in a uniquely British version of the story. The film opens with Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp of The Trial Of The Chicago 7) as a bright-eyed, eager-to-please fledgling bureaucrat starting a new job in the Public Works department of 1953 London. Taking the (very British) steam engine to work each morning, he watches as the bespoke bowler-cap-wearing, prim-and-proper (and very British) Mr. Williams (Nighy) boards the train. In the office, they are joined by several other dapper gentlemen and the charming secretary Miss Harris (Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood) as they sort through immense files of paper. With little emotion and much decorum, they pass forms around, scribbling down notes (very Britishly), before either sending them off through the maze of city hall departments or burying them in immense stacks to be revisited and circulated at a later date (much to the chagrin of the civilians trying to clear up matters).
After a lifetime of following the same routine, however, Mr. Williams all at once begins to act erratically, to the confusion of his subordinates. Skipping work for days on end, he eventually runs into Miss Harris outside of the office, and in several awkward but charming encounters, he confesses that he is dying of stomach cancer and grappling with a life filled largely with humdrum paper shuffling. Through his boozy encounters with a writer (Tom Burke), his grandfatherly friendship with Miss Harris, and some soul-searching of his own, he decides to return to work and actually get things done (much to the shock and horror of his colleagues). The result is a splendidly crafted and finely calibrated examination of birth, death, and the careers we use to fill the time in between.
With the magnitude of its creators, Living could have easily buckled under the pressure of its predecessors. The Ishiguro script, however, is deftly handled by director Oliver Hermanus, who tells what is ultimately a very simple, intimate tale with measured grace. The shots of London’s County Hall from cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay, the well-tailored suits from costume designer (and 15-time Oscar nominee) Sandy Powell, and the delicate, string-infused score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch all contribute to the finely tuned perfection of the film. While its quaint, well-mannered, uplifting if melancholy tone may be reminiscent of other pleasing British fare like Downton Abbey, The King’s Speech, and Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris, Living offers more gravitas without ever feeling weighty.
Perhaps the best part of the film, and why it works so effortlessly—even though making something look effortless usually takes a wild amount of effort—is its performances. The Golden Globe- and Critics Choice Award-nominated Nighy has delivered one of the year’s most memorable turns. The way he manages to convey so much while playing a man whose chief character trait is emotional restraint is nothing short of miraculous, a testament to his decades as an actor on stage and screen (and worthy of a first, long overdue Oscar nomination). Nighy’s scenes with the consistently wonderful Wood are especially electric as her charming effervescence and infectious grin are the perfect foil to his stoic facade. Sharp, who plays what is basically a young version of Nighy, also proves to be an able scene partner.
Living is not a big movie, despite the pedigree of its creators. But it is an artistically masterful one—a film that, while deceptively simple, may linger in your mind for years to come.