Living – movie review

The movie Living contemplates the rhetorical question “You call that living?”.

We’re in London in the 1950s and the respect Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) heads up Public Works at County Hall. He and his staff travel to work each day by train – although not in the same carriage – dressed to the nines (bowler hats and immaculately turned-out suits). One of Mr Williams’ staff is the (seemingly) perpetually cheerful Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood). After 16 months in Public Works, she’s in line for decidedly different job – at a restaurant. Among others is Mr Williams’ equally dour second-in-charge, Middleton (Adrian Rawlins). Young Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) joins the Public Works’ team, and quickly learns that humour isn’t appreciated in the early hours. It’s soon clear he fancies Miss Harris.

The department has a mountain of paperwork to get through; and it never seems to reduce. Then there’s the ongoing issue of red tape, where departments regularly play “pass the parcel”, without any outcome. Although polite to a fault, and always on time, Mr Williams seems colourless. He doesn’t engage in idle conversation. And then he receives devastating news, which changes his outlook. He doesn’t share this news with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) or daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran), who live with him but want to move to their own place. Mr Williams takes extended leave. This includes an instinctive trip to the seaside, where he links up with a stranger, Sutherland (Tom Burke) who’s having trouble sleeping.

With a fine attention to period detail, Living is a sensitive and affecting work. Oliver Hermanus directs from a script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). It’s a remake of the 1952 Japanese drama Ikiru by filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Everything about Living is polished – the script, the fine acting and direction, the music, sound and lighting. Restraint helps give the movie its edge. Much is held back and yet the feelings are clear.

As mentioned, the performances are all excellent, but I will single out a few, starting with the incomparable Nighy. His demeanour and metamorphosis are equally impressive. There is a quiet dignity about him in the role and it is clear how he is able to positively impact those around him. Aimee Lou Wood is intoxicating as the joyful Miss Harris, whose joie de vivre is unmistakable. Alex Sharp is a breath of fresh air as Wakeling.

Shot in traditional 4:3 TV aspect ratio, Living convincingly reflects on the importance of living a life of meaning through a historic lens. It’s a film that moved and captivated me.

Alex First

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