What does it mean to live well? How does it affect us if we don’t? Where do we find happiness and meaning? And what – if anything – can shake us out of a mindset that closes us off emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually?
These are some of the questions that Living considers and gently encourages us to answer.
Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro has taken a much-loved Akira Kurosawa film, Ikiru, and transferred it pretty seamlessly to 1950s London, where life – on the surface at least – seems ordered and predictable.
Married women stay at home while the men head off to work each morning, gathering at the train station like a clutch of migrating birds. A new chap, who hasn’t yet learned the art of bureaucratic dullness, sticks out like a sore thumb on the platform as he joins a group of fellow civil servants, each of whom has his bowler hat, dark suit, umbrella and disinclination for conversation.
When their train stops closer to town, we find out why. Their boss, widower Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) gets on board, and each underling has used him as their template.
This continues once they reach the office where, following Mr Williams’ example, each man has his own method of obfuscation to ensure public concerns and projects are mired in red tape and nothing gets done.
The only spark of brightness in this drab place is Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), a cheerful young woman who, unsurprisingly, is looking for a job elsewhere.
The picture changes suddenly when Mr Williams’ doctor tells him he only has months to live. His immediate response is politely restrained – almost wooden – but this is clearly not an issue that can be pushed to one side like the projects at work. Faced with his own mortality, he must confront the uncomfortable truth that he has been alive without truly living.
What follows is a type of fable, as Mr Williams seeks to understand happiness and peace, and how he might attain them.
Ishiguro wrote the screenplay for Living with Bill Nighy in mind, and Nighy gives arguably the best performance of his career – portraying anguish, uncertainty, love, loneliness, sorrow and joy with incredible nuance and skill, and in a manner that’s likely to bring audience members to tears on more than one occasion.
While he probably won’t win the Oscar for this portrayal, it’s very hard to take your eyes off him as his Mr Williams gradually thaws, trying out a gentle smile here and there and seeking to express himself in ways he may never have done before – including with a beautifully pure singing voice (who knew?).
Living takes you on a deeply moving journey and is worth seeing for the story alone. However, for Christians there are also plenty of faith-life links to be made with parables like the prodigal son and the rich fool, or with Solomon’s observations in Ecclesiastes about work, meaning and satisfaction under God.
We all know our earthly lives are finite, but at the same time we choose to continue from day to day as though we will live forever. It is only when reminded of or faced with death that we take it as seriously as the Lord means that we should.
Mr Williams discovers that life is not about living it up (“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”, 1 Cor 15:32). It’s not about living for work or even living for love. We all need, in our turn, to remember what (or who!) is important and live each day with the awareness that this life is not all there is.
Go and see Living. It is beautifully crafted, poignant and subtle, and will resonate with you long after you leave the cinema.