It’s not such an original premise: a man who has played it safe for his whole life receives a terminal prognosis and changes his outlook. In many ways, too, this is a dramatic mirror image of the gentle comedy Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. It’s set in a similar world, with faceless bureaucracy to be stood up to by someone with nothing to lose, repressive British manners to be overcome and fairly low stakes in the scheme of things.
The central performance by Bill Nighy, though, elevates Living from straightforward schlock. Living is a remake (with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro) of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, or To Live. Mr Watanabe is replaced by Nighy’s Mr Williams, a man so buttoned up that you sense he can barely breathe.
Decades of dull pen-pushing and thankless deference to his betters come crashing down when Williams, a man in his 60s, is given a stomach cancer diagnosis. In the short term, a Ferris Bueller-type day off in Brighton with boozy bohemian playwright (Tom Burke), gives Williams a jolt. He gets drunk, sings out loud in a pub and sees a burlesque show.
But he eventually translates this newfound urgency and focus to his workplace, and takes up causes that had been floundering in paperwork hell, particularly one that would convert a corner of a working class slum into a children’s playground.
He takes long lunches with a charismatic young former coworker (Aimee Lou Wood) and looks to instill an unadulterated dose of ‘carpe diem’ into his already-dusty team of younger men. This is done in ways that American audiences might find too subtle to be interesting, but the rebellion has to be analyzed on a relative scale.
Nighy does such a good job of conveying a life of constraint, a stifling, starch-stiff existence with precious few air pockets for self-expression and certainly no room for bending the system, even for good. Small victories become hugely significant, and even the act of shaking a colleague’s hand and thanking them for their work becomes a talismanic freedom charge.
The humble playground itself is an obvious visual metaphor for living, and the message is perhaps that letting yourself go on the swings for even a few minutes is better than watching from the sidelines. Living is slow and quaint for the most part, but Nighy’s emergent charm is irresistible, and it’s a welcome reminder to make even the small parts of our lives as memorable as possible. (PO)
Living is playing at the Prytania Theatres at Canal Place
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