Living, an English-language reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, does not attempt to improve on the original, nor does it tamper with its wisdom about what it means to live a meaningful life. As a drama it’s both respectful and cautious, even to a fault, as it carefully transposes a Japanese milieu for an English one. In that regard, the most qualified person to realize it is Kazuo Ishiguro, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist born in Japan and raised in England. His sensitivity to the nuances of human speech and behavior, and Bill Nighy’s knack for conveying them, are the film’s strongest assets.
Nighy plays a fastidious civil servant — a mummy in a pinstripe suit — whose mounds of paperwork cocoon him from the outside world. When a sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer cracks him out of his shell, he embarks on a journey of the spirit. First, he goes on a bender with a local bohemian (Tom Burke), and finding the experience empty, begins a chaste yet uncomfortable friendship with a young woman (Aimee Lou Wood) who used to work in his government office. At last, he commences on a crusade to accomplish something truly worthwhile: the construction of a children’s playground in a London slum. This final, urgent act of altruism transcends his death, as his name lives on in the memories of those he helped.
Oliver Hermanus directs with an eye for detail, beginning with an opening credits sequence featuring a montage of 1950s London behind vintage typeface, imitating a classic Technicolor melodrama. Shooting in the antiquated Academy ratio (1:33 to 1), he and his cinematographer Jamie Ramsay open up considerable space above the actors’ heads, an attractive if unmotivated choice. He even implements wipes to transition between scenes, a geeky nod to one of Kurosawa’s favorite editing tropes. While these aesthetic flexes produce a handsome result, they also impose a certain superficiality on the proceedings.
Just as some literature improves on translation, some movies acquire power when relocated from one cultural milieu to another. Unfortunately, Living is not one of them. Ikiru owes a considerable share of its emotional power not only to its masterful scene building, but to its context as the product of a defeated country, which makes its theme of “rebirth” all the more poignant. Setting the film in post-WWII London, when the country was also busy with its own reconstruction, puts some emotional distance between the events and the viewer.
The filmmakers, to their credit, preserve the bold narrative construction of the original, in which the last few weeks of the protagonist’s life are told in flashback by the people that knew him. The film adds, as a bonus, a stirring rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia over the final scene in the snow — a gambit that Terence Davies employed in the exact same way in this year’s Benediction. If you aren’t at least a little moved by the coda, you may be as ossified as the main character.