The film that this is based on what is thought of as a classic. “Ikiru” was once listed on “Sight and Sounds” poll of critics as the 12th greatest film of all time. The controversial 2022 version of the poll does not even have it in the top 100, which sounds like another reason to see the new poll as highly suspect. I doubt that an English language remake, 70 years after the original, will gain the same sort of respect, but as a film from the last year, “Living” would certainly qualify for a number of top ten lists and it also addresses one of the grave injustices of the Academy Awards, by finally acknowledging the great Bill Nighy.
I have yet to see “Ikiru”, but if it is better than this film, then it must be pretty darned great. “Living” is another film set at the tail end of a man’s life, asking some of those questions all of us face when we get close to whatever is next. Like “A Man Called Otto” from earlier this month, “Living” has a protagonist who is facing death, but his situation is somewhat different, and the issues the film speaks to are maybe more universal. Rodney Williams is an imperial supervisor of a group of bureaucrats, working in the public works offices of the British government in postwar London. The formality of his dress and manner of speaking, ring of an old world style that is still entrenched in the class system of Britain. He wears a suit, and a Bowler hat, which mark him as a member of the professional class. We quickly learn that he is feared and revered by the coterie of government men working under him. A new employee, rapidly begins to absorb the forms of communication and work ethics that the office employs.
If your image of dystopia is the bureaucratic nightmare found in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”, then you will find it’s origins in this set of offices. Mr. Williams however, discovers on the one day he changes his routine in order to see his doctor, that his life has a rapidly approaching expiration date. The story follows Mr. Williams as he has a crisis of identity and questions the life he has lead. Many people would probably do as he first attempts to do, by discovering fun under the tutelage of a confirmed hedonist. These two come together and there is some pleasure to be had, but ultimately, is cavorting a satisfactory pursuit for Williams? The answer appears to be no. This interlude in the film, makes up the first of three phases that Williams goes through at the end of his life. There is a strongly implied moment where suicide might have been considered, but Mr. Williams has always been too proper a man to actually do such a thing. Bill Nighy interacts with a man he meets in a diner, and while they do take pleasure from an evening of frivolity, it is easy to see from the performance, that Williams is not quite made out for this lifestyle.
The second phase is where Nighy really gets to shine. He is attracted like a moth to a flame, by a young co-worker who is leaving the bureaucracy, for a job in the service industry. She seems to enjoy the idea of working in a different environment, and Williams, who has not gone back to work for days, indulges in the simple pleasures that she enjoys. A walk through the park, a visit to a museum, a drink at the pub. His interest is not romantic, but the neighbors are scandalized by his involvement with a young woman, and he always looks like he is trying to fit in without ever quite accomplishing it. His formality in speaking with her, the posture he holds when sitting at a table that she is waiting on, and her discomfiture at his occupying so much of her time, also indicates that he has not really found the meaning he is looking for.
Ultimately, the film is about making the life you have chosen, rather than choosing another life. At one point after he has returned to work, and then after his funeral, his colleagues begin to question whether he had changed. It turns out that neither his manner or way of speaking has altered, but rather he has changed his perception of the job. Mortality has confronted him with an opportunity to stop being merely a cog in an ever grinding wheel, but rather to act as a facilitator to the objectives that his position really expects of him. The fact that everyone else in the government has become a zombie of bureaucracy, does not change, but Williams has.
I thought that it was an interesting choice to change the perspective in the last phase of the story from first person to second person. Mr. Wakeling, the new functionary, becomes almost a narrator of the story. He is potentially the one person who will be influenced by Williams progress, but even that is in doubt at the end. Anyone who has dealt with a government agency, knows the despair of trying to get something done, and being faced by polite but indifferent minions of the system. Mr. Williams finds a small redemption for a life of monolithic intransigence, by fulfilling a purpose that should be obvious to all of us. Do something, don’t simply be something. There is dignity in life and work, not just from showing up, but from also considering why you are showing up. It is a lesson that was true 70 years ago in Kurosawa’s Japan, and it should still be true whether it is 1950s England, 2020s America, or any other place in the world.