'Living' movie review: Chronicle of a death foretold

'Living' movie review: Chronicle of a death foretold

A singular moment that comes riding on such a lifelike performance from Nighy that it doesn’t seem like acting at all.

Oliver Hermanus’s Living truly resides, breathes, and thrives in a Scottish folk song called “The Rowan Tree”. Bill Nighy, as Mr Williams, a dour civil servant at the London County Council, sings this song from his childhood animatedly the night after the realization of his impending death. A singular moment that comes riding on such a lifelike performance from Nighy that it doesn’t seem like acting at all. One which underlines the essential impasse at the core of the film: how to live when you are dying.

Hermanus consciously chooses a challenging task for himself. Adapting Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru could well be considered an unpardonable trespass by the purists. But he is on safe ground with a classical, literate screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro on the one hand, and Nighy’s staggeringly profound presence on the other, both of which were nominated at the recent Academy awards. Ikiru is said to have been inspired from the Leo Tolstoy novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich but there’s also something Buddha-like in the considerable transformation of Williams in Living; in the way he forces himself to relook, reconsider and recalibrate life when it is slipping out of his hands. Living is like a journey that Williams goes on to arrive at a larger truth at its end.

Williams is a sum of all the choices he is made—not seeking out the companionship of another woman once his wife dies, preferring to be an unobtrusive, quiet gentleman, who’d walk ahead then together with his colleagues, knowing little about them, sharing nothing of himselfwith them. There are barely any smiles, but an overwhelming frostiness that adds to the distances and alienation in the closest of relationships. He is married to the joylessness of routine. For someone who’d keep the files on hold in the office, life itself has been in constant adjournment.

In a beautifully imagined and poignantly realized scene, we see the memories flash past his mind’s eye as he contemplates his death. You could call Living a snapshot of Williams at a critical juncture, but the unconscious prime movers are people around him—the ladies at Chester Street petitioning for a park at the site of World War II bombings, an insomniac writer Sutherland (Tom Burke) who is the first person William shares the news of his medical diagnosis with, and a cheerful office colleague Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) who rightly calls him Zombie and also fires his appetite for life, wanting him to live to the fullest like her for a day. They all give him vital life lessons. That it’s never too late to put things in order.

For a film about a reticent and reclusive soul, Living moves on conversations on the one hand, and Williams’ inability to have conversations with his son on the other hand. Languidly told, elegantly crafted, and handsomely shot, with thegently gliding camera giving us a peep into people’s souls, Living has a mellow and moving air about it with a stoic Nighy at its core. It makes one square up to seminal questions: should one live in the moment, uncaring about what comes next? Or should one work towards a legacy for people to remember one with? Most of all Living is about being able to arrive at the end of life with few regrets, small achievements, modest satisfactions, and unflappable happiness.

Sometimes films take time to travel. But on reaching you, they  stay on forever. Living premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival. I watched it the morning after the Oscars only to find that irrespective of winning awards or not Living is a keeper. A sentient film that lives up to its name.

Cinema Without Borders

In this weekly column, the writer introduces you to powerful cinema from across the world

Film: Living

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