This superb British drama makes the concept of legacy tangible again

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Jan. 27
4.5 out of 5

Remaking an Akira Kurosawa movie is hardly a novel idea. The most notable example is John Sturges’ reimagining of Seven Samurai as a Western (The Magnificent Seven). But numerous other films, past and present, continue to rip off the Japanese master: Star Wars: A New Hope borrowed freely from The Hidden Fortress, just as A Fistful of Dollars is basically Yojimbo with ponchos.

South African director Oliver Hermanus doesn’t mess with his source in Living (Kurosawa’s Ikiru). But the film does such a good job transplanting the script to mid-20th century London it feels new again.

In a rare starring role, Bill Nighy knocks it out of the park as Mr. Williams, a government bureaucrat who approves the construction of public parks. More often than not he’s part of a byzantine buck-passing circuit that ensures nothing gets done.

The protagonist’s wake-up call comes in the form of a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has enough self-awareness to realize he’s conformed to the bureaucratic standard for so long that he doesn’t know how to appreciate life anymore. So he sets out, in his own way, to change that.

First, he tries the hedonistic route, tagging along with a writer (Tom Burke, The Souvenir) for a night of debauchery, only to discover he gets no pleasure from it. Instead, he feels drawn to a young woman in his department, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood, Sex Education). It’s not a matter of physical attraction, it’s her joie de vivre that appeals to him.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Living is about legacy. Often, that idea is associated with grandeur — or at least a grand gesture. But Living (as Kurosawa did in Ikiru) makes it much less ego-driven. Legacy can be something as simple as word of advice, a letter, or even a children’s park.

While Hermanus is the director, the key name behind the camera is screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro. The author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day (both turned into movies) Ishiguro  is a rare breed in the film industry who manages to balance his literary background with cinematic vision. An elegant writer, he avoids fireworks: crafting a story bursting at the seams, but still contained.

None of this would work if it wasn’t for Nighy. A reliable actor who only became a household name in his fifties (never mind the haters, Love Actually got him there), he is outstanding: stiff upper lip throughout, with only the odd side glance or slight twitch betraying his stern appearance. His arc is heartbreaking, but somehow redemptive, even though we know from early on he probably won’t make it to the end.

If a fairer world, Nighy and Ishiguro would be shoe-ins for Academy Awards. Living embodies the true spirit of “blue”, and it didn’t cost $US350M to make. ■