Making Time to Enjoy Life

The great British actor, Bill Nighy in “Living”, Lionsgate 2022

How are your New Year’s Resolutions holding up? Did you commit to a new diet or make time to visit the gym? Was yours a Dry January? As we begin this second month of 2023, there are noticeably less people at my local gym and many people have likely bailed on those aspirational resolutions. It’s difficult to make positive changes and establish new healthier habits.

What if you didn’t know where to start to make those changes? What if you learned that your life was going to be ending in 6 months? In the film “Living”, our central character has become such a slave to the bureaucratic system and daily grind that his nickname is The Zombie. He’s so shut down and bottled up that he doesn’t know how to start living his life. His soul is trapped under rigid layers of conformity and tradition.

This British drama, directed by Oliver Hermanus (South African director and actor), is from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (“Never Let Me Go”, “Remains of the Day”). It was adapted from the 1952 Japanese film, “Ikiru” (“To Live”, Akira Kurosawa). “Ikiru” was itself inspired by the 1886 Russian novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich written by Leo Tolstoy. Oddly enough, I’ve read the Tolstoy novel but didn’t realize the connection.

There’s also a connection between the rigid societal role of a Japanese Salaryman, that of the 1950’s British civil servant, and the Russian magistrate of Tolstoy’s story. They all share similar constraints and routines. Each of those roles is also defined by clothing. I was struck by the hats in “Living” and the umbrellas and watches. These symbols of wealth and status mark you as living a particular life.

“Living” is a gentle period drama with great emotional resonance. It opens with clips of film footage of the era and a title sequence that imitates the films from that time. I felt both were unnecessary as we’re dropped right into the period with the first scene on the train platform. One young man is struggling to contain his excitement and nervousness as he joins the more staid gentlemen from the county Public Works department. He’s told to tap down his enthusiasm. “It’s similar to being in church”, a colleague advises.

The leader of their department is the perfect embodiment of the British stiff upper lip, buttoned up propriety, and no-nonsense bureaucrat, played by Bill Nighy. He doesn’t even greet his fellow travelers on the train but merely tips his bowler hat. Meeting a superior in the hallway, he similarly only bows his head. There’s a rigid hierarchy here and a complete lack of joy. And we soon learn, at the county office, everyone seems willing to pass the buck.

The movie is carried by the performance of Bill Nighy. Known for his work on screen and stage, Nighy is an award-winning British actor. He gives this emotionally constipated man, Rodney Williams, a wonderful range of emotions once he’s decided to try to live his life. He’s bewildered, angry, grief-stricken. He doesn’t seem to know where to turn or what to do. He keeps up the charade of normal life at home. He dresses for work and rides the train to London.

Bill Nighy and Aimee Lou Wood in “Living”, photo courtesy Lionsgate

Helping him on his journey is the vivacious young woman (Aimee Lou Wood) who’s vitality he admires. The young man (Alex Sharp) introduced in the first scene represents Williams at the beginning of his career. Williams seeks to show him that’s there’s meaning to the work they’re doing, and his example inspires others.

There’s a moment in the film where time jumps forward, and I was worried that it was a serious misstep to the storytelling. Without Nighy’s presence, would the tale be interesting? Fortunately, our young actors carry the story and the poignant ending, anchored by a flashback to Nighy singing on a swing, is wonderful.

Perhaps after seeing this film, you’ll be inspired to recommit to a New Year’s resolution. At the very least, you’ll see why Bill Nighy was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.

Drinks with Films rating: 4 cups of British tea (out of 5)

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