Bill Nighy excels in a movie meditation on mortality and legacy
I have not been to see WAKANDA FOREVER. Yet. I will get around to that. I promise. My enthusiasm for Marvel dimmed when Tony Stark died. Sorry!
That said? There is a coincidental and aesthetic/moral parallel between the new Black Panther adventure and LIVING. Death and its implications are both pondered, albeit in differing genres. In that sense? It almost did not matter which movie I selected to watch.
Oliver Harmanus directs LIVING, beautifully. It fits his philosophical approach to film. The moral motifs are somewhat open to interpretation.
Bill Nighy plays Williams: a civil servant, ‘living’ (as the title conveys) with the certain knowledge of his imminent death. Cancer is implied as the cause, although the film avoids prolonged fixation on the details of disease, save momentary shards of pain.
The irony is that, in finding his life at its end, Williams begins a journey of discovery to reinvent and reinvigorate his own reason for existence. It is shown that, in effect, the man was dead long before his diagnosis.
The sort of muse in his awakening (Aimee Lou Ward, compellingly real and earnest as Margaret, the secretary/waitress) even nick-names him ‘zombie’.
And therein lies the film’s main strength and a frozen weakness which prevents a truly tonal signature to the whole. Nighy is, as I have mentioned, mesmeric and brilliant, as the lead here. He plays Williams in a kind of trance like state, perpetually repressed and modulated.
Think a filmic embodiment of “Son of Man”, by René Magritte (painting also featured in the Brosnan remake of The Thomas Crown Affair).
But that is why the film frustrates somewhat. Because Nighy is ultimately, a star name. So, one goes to watch him to his Bill Nighy ‘thing’ (wave hands; gesticulate body; make funny quips; chat up women: refined rock star both anti and inside establishment: hence he would have made an awesome Dr Who!). DO NOT EXPECT ANY OF THAT HERE!
Granted, yes, actors act. And a character role is not the same as playing to the crowd. ‘One for me, one for them’ as Denzel Washington, Steven Spielberg and George Clooney say.
IE: make passion projects in which you devote yourself to complex craft and understated elegance, yet fund those via box office crowd pleasers where you give the public what they want.
Fine! Got it. Great. And yes, Nighy ought to gain an Oscar nomination here. He has come a long way in 30 years from playing randy academic of the week on cop shows and kitchen sink dramas. The guy is a bona fide STAR as well as character actor.
But that’s just it. That same academy award clout was arguably ‘there’ in LOVE ACTUALLY: as in a supporting part, with specific brief to cheer the story along.
And so, here, in LIVING? It would be logical for there to be a kind of half time switcheroo from Nighy the repressed civil servant (dying or not) to the big gestured fun film star. Because the whole motif and motive of the arc presented is supposedly, a rediscovery of JOY.
Yes, the script indeed presents a man suddenly throwing out his old schedules, constraints and office political shackles. Nighy shows Williams paying attention to the little details in life and those around him.
A sub-plot involving a playground serves as the symbolic glue to the puzzle pieces at work onscreen. Momentary uplift. Note: the term ‘parks and recreation’ is used and I did smile at that, thinking of the comfort food American tv series.
There is just something ‘missing’ from LIVING. You are taken down corridors with little to no pay-off. Notice the cameo by a writer in Brighton and almost pulpy vignette which follows. It simply disappears. And there is no romance here, May to December or otherwise, despite some misleading marketing materials to the contrary?
So one cannot help but feel a bit cheated, tonally? Or at least, that’s my feeling. Any such ambiguity does not detract from the craft at work here, though. THIS IS A MOVING AND BRILLIANT FILM.
Beautifully shot, lit, sound designed, scored and edited, one is reminded of BRIEF ENCOUNTER, BRIGHTON ROCK and many other greats. Perfect period detail and immersive atmospherics fuse in service of truly moving and thought provoking art. Film at its finest, in that sense.
I was also taken back to the best works of Neil Jordan (MICHAEL COLLINS /END OF THE AFFAIR). And the film is produced by Jordan’s old producing partner, Stephen Woolley.
LIVING is adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s original work by the brilliant Kazuo Ishiguro: think Remains of the Day in a tighter cinematic idiom? Or Never Let Me Go, but done as period piece without the sci-fi twist? It’s great writing. As always. From a great writer. But Kazuo: maybe give us an action film, next.
Remake YOJIMBO (Itself done as a Bond film called Licence to Kill: 007 casts away civil service protocol to live like there’s no tomorrow: thematic connection!).
Also: Nighy read MOONRAKER as an audio book. And in said book? Bond spends much of his time, trying to escape civil service mundanities. In addition?
Note, too: Nighy played a Le Carre quasi Bond baddie in THE CONSTANT GARDENER, wherein the hero is..a civil servant (Ralph Fiennes, who goes onto play M in BOND FILMS and featured in THE END OF THE AFFAIR). It’s all connected! 🙂
Ergo: next movie? Kazuo writes Bill Nighy, action hero. On warpath. For revenge. Pitting enemies against each other. Clint Eastwood directing. Just a thought. 😉
LIVING: A tonally frustrating yet undeniably accomplished, thought provoking marvel of aesthetic and moral merit. Recommended. A GREAT MOVIE, WELL WRITTEN AND ACTED. Grade A