Mr. Williams is a very English gentleman. Played with note-perfect poise and restraint by Bill Nighy in Living, Williams embodies a life of service. He’s an old-stock Englishman, the strong and silent type. He doesn’t ride in the same car as his underlings on the daily commute. He makes polite and modest chit chat at work. And he carries an air that all is shipshape even when he’s quietly imploding.
Williams is so very, very English that he doesn’t even receive a first name in the beautifully understated screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Living is an English adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, and the Japanese-British Ishiguro perfectly reinvigorates the classic. The modes of decorum translate well between Japanese and British culture. In both films, the stoic public servant learns that he is terminally ill and using his remaining time to discover what it means to live. Yet Nighy’s Williams turns particularly inward. It’s an appropriate defence for a man of his stature in the 1952 London setting. Living is a quietly stirring study of the ways in which class immobilizes us.
Staged with carefully measured precision by South African director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie), Living is an understated exploration of Englishness that should make fans of Terrence Davies and James Ivory swoon, but its whispering grace will similarly reward fans of restrained dramas like Shoplifters or Drive My Car.
While Mr. Williams hews closely to Mr. Watanabe of Ikiru, he is unmistakably an Ishiguro character. Nighy carries him with such poise that Williams could easily have walked from the pages of The Remains of the Day. Like the love that passes by Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton in Ishiguro’s novel, Living observes a man as he reckons with a life that’s passed him by. He is a man governed by rules and reduced to a kind of self-imposed exile. His young colleague, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), nicknames him “Mr. Zombie.” As she later tells him, he’s like an Egyptian mummy—dead, yet still walking the Earth.
Ishiguro and Hermanus situate Williams within a world of dullness, order, and routine. Heading the desk of the Public Works department, the esteemed civil servant shuffles folders around his desk until punching out. His underlings, including fresh-eyed Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp), the stodgy Mr. Middleton (Adrian Rawlings), and the ebulliently boyish Mr. Rusbridger (Hubert Burton) learn by example. Facing Mr. Zombie, the civil servants of public works are settling in to a career of bureaucratic complacency.
Living explores the ways in which clinging to rank, order, and routine renders us inhuman. This thread appears, as it does in Ikiru, with a trio of women who want a neglected corner of their neighbourhood restored as a playground. When they arrive again at Public Works, Williams barely needs to look for their file. It’s where he tucked it last time. This time, however, he fobs them off on Mr. Wakeling. Eager to please, Wakeling takes the ladies through the municipal maze. One department shuffles the file to another. The women have seen this charade before. They lead their freshman servant through the corridors of bureaucratic indifference having endured the routine many times. The file, naturally, returns to Public Works where Williams buries it anew, all in a day’s work.
Mr. Zombie Springs to Life
Something changes in Williams’ routine later that day, however, when his doctor informs him that he has cancer. His life, seemingly as crisp as his suits and as clean as his derby band, suddenly resembles an unruly void. Williams can’t find the words to tell his son and daughter-in-law about his illness, nor can be break the stiff-upper-lip and face his colleagues. Williams instead plays hooky and lands in Brighton.
There, he meets Sutherland (Tom Burke), a rogue-ish artist looking for fun by the pier. Somehow, the gentleman opens up to the ruffian and reveals his fate. Unnerved by Williams’ vulnerability and his aching hunger not to waste his final days, Sutherland leads him on a night of drunken excess. Williams lets loose. He guzzles pints and admires the ladies. Yet the debauchery seems especially unseemly juxtaposed with Williams’ well-pressed suit. Even Sutherland rumbles at the sadness of it all. The pubs are not where one goes to embrace life, but rather to escape it.
As William caves inward, he takes solace in Miss Harris and Mr. Wakeling. It’s his lunch date with Miss Harris, though, that really gives him new life. When she reveals that she’s nicknamed him “Mr. Zombie,” Williams’ face collapses. The diagnosis shakes him more visibly than the news from the doctor does. But in that moment, at that table, surrounded by all the people living their ordered lives, Miss Harris’ remark shatters the prison guarded Williams for so long. Seemingly fuelled by their youthfulness and naïveté, Williams mentors his protégés to learn from his mistakes.
Nighy’s performance is a masterclass in restraint and subtlety as Williams learns to let down his guard. Moreover, the mannered nature of his poise and grace in the first acts makes Williams’ vulnerability doubly compelling. When emotions erupt every so slightly in Living, they almost take one aback. Nighy, so often a spark of raucous comedy, has never been so good while playing it straight. Hermanus shows similar restraint and measure in his direction. Living is an exercise in class, aesthetically, from the serenely crisp cinematography by Jamie Ramsay to the old-school title cards that bookend the film. But Living is, thematically, a deconstruction of class from an outsider’s perspective. Living might share Ikiru’s 1952 setting, but it speaks to today. When we all go back to “living,” can things really be as they were before?