In Akira Kurosawa’s 1982 autobiography (Something Like an Autobiography) his film Ikiru only gets a passing mention in a chapter dealing with the filming of his cinematic masterpiece, Rashomon. Ikiru, which roughly translates as “To Live”, is one of the director’s most loved masterpieces. Roger Ebert himself claimed that he loved the film so much that he would revisit it every five years; each time, becoming more and more empathetic to the plight of Ikiru’s male protagonist (originally played by Takashi Shimura). However, as good as this 1952 classic may be, it is also a film that is more beloved by extreme cinephiles and graduate level film professors than anyone else. After all, who wants to sit through a two hour plus tale dealing with existential musings on the nature of morality and human decency?
It seems that Hollywood would much rather sit through violent re-renderings of films like Yojimbo or Seven Samurai. That is at least, until a chance dinner meeting between writer Kazuo Ishiguro (Klara and the Sun, Remains of the Day), producer Stephen Woolley (Interview with the Vampire, Carol) and actor Bill Nighy (need we really list the man’s credits?). Near the end of their dinner, Ishiguro —a cinephile in his own right— along with his wife, suggested to Nighy that they knew of the perfect role for Nighy to take on next. That role would end up being that of the character Williams in the remake of the aforementioned Kurosawa classic, now called Living.
As the project started moving closer and closer to fruition, Woolley and his co-producer Elizabeth Karlsen set out to put together a team of enigmatic and talented artists to help bring this film to life. Their first move was to bring in Ishiguro for screenwriting duties. It was a suggestion that was initially met with a lot of resistance from the author. After all, he had merely suggested the role for Nighy and had no intention of writing the thing himself. Ishiguro hadn’t seen an original script through to production since the early 2000s (The White Countess, The Saddest Music in the World) and he was still knee deep in the writing of his new novel—which may or may not have been Klara and the Sun. However, after frequent persistence and the insistence that no other writer would do, Woolley and Karlsen eventually got him to sign on for the job. With Ishiguro and Nighy firmly attached to the film, it was now easier to attract interest from prospective investors as well as secure the rights to the film from the Kurosawa estate.
Later, after an intensive interview process, South African film Director Oliver Hermanus and his long time co-pilot/cinematographer Jamie Ramsay were invited to join the fray. The culture surrounding this film was one that was filled with reverence and respect for films of the ’50s and Hermanus and Ramsay fit in perfectly. The producer’s had admired their work on his 2019 film Moffie, and it became evidently clear that these were the right guys for the job. Once celebrated pianist and composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (Censor) and legendary Hollywood costume designer Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York) joined the crew, all the pieces of the puzzle were complete—Avengers assemble!
Ishiguro’s screenplay for Living may have borrowed its concept from the original Kurosawa film, but what he has put down here is something that is indelibly and unabashedly his own. It is one that pays homage to the style and motifs explored in the original story, but at the same time has the feel and stamp of an original Ishiguro work. Much like those in his written novels, the characters of Living find themselves locked in an internal struggle, a battle between their inner emotional turmoil, and their failure to express this in a world that is constantly changing and with seemingly no place for them.
Much like the original, the story deals with a man who is caught in the engine of an ever-churning bureaucratic machine, except this time the film is set in 1950s Britain instead of a post-WWII Japan. It is the story of Williams (Bill Nighy) a man who walks around life devoid of inspiration and searching for meaning in a post-war world. The zombie-like haze of his everyday life is soon disrupted when he is diagnosed with a terminal illness. With the shadow of death looming ever nearer and nearer, Williams desperately searches to add substance to his life. He pines for the long lost vigor of his youth, and searches for a way to escape the frail reality of his everyday life while also trying to forge a meaningful legacy for future generations.
Nighy’s character came of age during the Edwardian era, a tumultuous to say the least. Though Nighy himself is not quite old enough to have been around during that time, his parents most certainly were. Much like his character in the film, Nighy’s parents had been around for both world wars, and witnessed the horror of the German blitz of London firsthand. It is hard to imagine that growing up around people of that generation didn’t help inform the stoic portrayal of his character in this film. Ishiguro himself moved to Britain in the 1960s and doubtlessly gained inspiration from the figures that surrounded him as a child. Much as in his novels, Living is a film in which it’s repressed and seems to worry more about what society considers to be ‘proper’ and ‘gentlemanly’ more than what is moral and just. It was a role custom-fit for Nighy to play, and one in which he embodies perfectly.
If Oliver Hermanus’s previous films haven’t put him on your radar, Living most definitely will. One of the hardest things with adapting a work by Ishiguro to the screen, is being able to communicate a character’s inner dialogue to the audience without actually having the character address them directly. Hermanus’ stunning knack for creating interesting and beautifully picturesque frames of living art could rival that of any of the great impressionist artists. He infuses each scene with a personality of its own, finding new and creative ways to frame shots, while also taking time to pay homage to the British films of the 1950s. He is an actor’s director, and his cast seems to place unwavering trust in his direction. This allows him to catch each actor at their most vulnerable, and translate that emotion to the screen.
However, perhaps the true star of this film is not Nighy’s dashing performance as Williams, nor is it Ishiguro’s prolific writing or amazing supporting work by actors Aimee Lou Wood (Sex Education) or Alex Sharp (The Trial of the Chicago 7). Instead, the biggest showstopper happens to be the set itself, the County Hall in London. The building was specifically mentioned in the original script, and whether through connections or random circumstance, the production crew somehow managed to secure the actual location for filming.
The building, designed by architect Ralph Knott in his “Edwardian Baroque” style, was opened by King George V in 1922, and was a cornerstone in local government affairs until Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986. It is a building that oozes history from every crack and crevice and adds a priceless amount of production value to an already expensive budget. Should the Oscars or BAFTA awards decide to allow historical structures to be nominated for best actor, then this six-story Portland stone structure would be a shoo-in. I guess we’ll just have to settle for a nomination for Bill Nighy instead.
Living’s Costume Designer Sandy Powell is no stranger to pressure; she’s worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and she touts one of the most prestigious records of award wins and nominations in modern cinema history. For you pub trivia addicts out there, she is one of the few people who have ever found herself nominated for two Oscars for Costume Design on two different occasions—once in 1999 for Velvet Goldmine and Shakespeare in Love (for which she one the award) and again in 2016 for Carol and Cinderella. In Living, Powell proves why she is one of the most sought after designers in Hollywood. The film’s melancholic tone meant that Powell had almost no color palette to work from. Nonetheless, her vast body of knowledge and insistence on historical accuracy meant that she more than any other aspect of the film could help cement the actors in the world of the 1950s. Her ability to add tiny flourishes that help to flesh out the individual personalities of each character is one of the reasons these characters seem so alive and relatable.
After finishing this film, it is hard not to be swept up in the majesty that is Living. It is a film that explores the cyclical nature of society, and asks its viewers to at least try and leave the world in better shape than when you found it. No amount of flowery language or gilding of lilies can do justice to the cinematic marvel that this wonderful team of filmmakers has put together. It is a film that asks us to draw a line between what is proper and what is moral; now we feel on the inside, and how we express it on the outside. It is the kind of art that happens once in a lifetime, when just the right elements come together at just the right time. Please take the time to see this movie, you deserve it.