Living: a remake that can stand with the original

Working from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, Oliver Hermanus’s remake of one of Kurosawa Akira’s most beloved films transposes the story from Tokyo to London, to great success.

10 October 2022

By Philip Kemp

Bill Nighy as Mr. Williams in Living (2022)
Sight and Sound

Ikiru (To Live, 1952) stands alone among the films of Kurosawa Akira’s greatest period in its quiet, understated contemplation. No samurai, no violence – no Mifune Toshiro, even. Instead, the director’s other favourite actor, Shimura Takashi, plays a dull local-government bureaucrat who finds himself confronted with a terminal disease.

To dare to remake such a potent film is a dangerously audacious undertaking. But director Oliver Hermanus and his screenwriter, the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, have brought it off – if not quite to perfection, at least very close. South African-born Hermanus’s previous feature, Moffie (2019), followed a sensitive young gay man conscripted into the brutal hell of the Apartheid-era army. Living centres around another vulnerable, secretive man; and though middle-class London in 1953 scarcely carries the same threat of jagged violence as 1980s South Africa, it’s no less rigid in its hierarchy.

Living kicks off with bird’s-eye-view full-colour shots of early 50s London: lots of buses and taxis, a few cars, and a plethora of bowler hats, one of them worn by Mr Williams (Bill Nighy), head of the London County Council’s Public Works Department. Williams, his upper lip as stiff as his hat, sees to it that all public requests to his department are shunted to other departments, who reciprocate in an endless round of polite buck-passing. Williams’ attitude changes, however, when he learns that he has only months to live.

‘To live’ – something that this buttoned-up man has never learnt to do. He begins by indulging in an evening of mild debauchery in Brighton with the help of a raffish writer (Tom Burke) he meets by chance; soon after, encouraged by the department’s only woman, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), he decides to do something, however modest, that will stand as his legacy.

Ishiguro’s script closely shadows the shape and tone of Kurosawa’s original, neatly transposing post-war Tokyo to post-war London. Shooting in County Hall, where the LCC was actually located, boosts the production’s authenticity. As Williams, Nighy perfectly captures the stoic melancholy of the functionary’s drab, routine existence, gradually leavened by a glint of animation as he starts to see new possibilities.

One weak element in Living is Williams’ home life; his son and daughter-in-law, with whom he shares his house, never quite come into focus. And the key moment when, in a sleazy nightclub, Williams stands up and quaveringly sings the traditional song ‘Oh Rowan Tree’ doesn’t quite have the poignancy of Shimura singing ‘Life Is So Short’ in Ikiru. Otherwise, though, Living offers a rare example of the remake of a masterpiece that can stand with the original.

► Living is one of the Headline Gala films at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 11 October.

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