Sundance Review: Bill Nighy In Living, British Remake Of Akira Kurosawas Classic Ikiru

I have always had a philosophy that if you are going to do a remake, remake a movie that didn’t work the first time like Howard the Duck, not a classic by a great filmmaker. Well, the latter is exactly what director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) and Nobel Prize-winning screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go) have had the audacity to do in “reimagining” (the popular term for remakes today) iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s highly praised 1952 drama Ikiru. And they haven’t even bothered to change the early ’50s era in which it takes place, only the location and language, moving from Japan to England. Despite my reservations I am happy to say Living, which has its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, works very well and that is solely thanks to the loving care these filmmakers have put into a new version exactly 70 years after the first was released.

Of course it helps to have a writer on the level of the great and admired Ishiguro, who vowed to be faithful to the script of Ikiru by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. There have been some character enhancements, a new love story and other touches, but this all holds up and shines a light on life and purpose all this time later as it centers on a decades-long straight-laced office bureaucrat (played in the original by Takashi Shimura) who has been lost in grief for many years following the death of his wife but only discovers the magic of living himself when he is told he is going to die. The other blessing for this version is in the absolutely 100% perfect casting of Bill Nighy, who could not be better as the man in question, Mr. Williams.

As the film opens in the bustling London of 1952, we see a swarm of hat-adorned men, all looking similar as they make their way to offices. It is the perfect use of wardrobe (three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell did the fine costume design) to put us right in the heart of who Mr. Williams is himself: a man buried in routine at his office, a quiet unassuming gentleman who does not make waves, who does not change course, and who grieves quietly for a brighter past. For 20 years he has lived this kind of solitary existence until one day he is diagnosed with a fatal disease and does not have much time left. It is a punch to the gut, so what to do?

Impulsively he leaves for a seaside excursion, perhaps deciding he can change his ways at the end and go for broke, which is what he does upon meeting a lively writer in a nearby café there who convinces him to go to the amusement park with him no-holds barred — something this guy named Sutherland (a terrific Tom Burke) revels in. Certainly this is one way to live out his days, but he has a different idea that maybe now is the time to make a difference, to lead a life well-lived, and he comes up with a plan to give back to a new generation. With the help of new office hire Peter (Alex Sharp) and a woman named Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), who had worked for Mr. Williams but now is trying to juice up her own life, Williams is re-energized and renewed, and soon, finally, does something for which he will be remembered. It all leads to a very satisfying conclusion, but it is best for your own discovery in this lovely British drama, by way of a classic Japanese tale that might have been the most human of all Kurosawa’s remarkable work.

This isn’t the first time the iconic master has been remade. John Sturges did it effectively in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, which was based on 1954’s Seven Samurai. Martin Ritt, a great director in his own right, was not as successful making one of his own lesser films in the 1964 remake of Kurosawa’s Rashomon called The Outrage, which starred Paul Newman. Hermanus succeeds in sticking to the source, staying true to the period, and in fact has made a movie — with the help of cinematographer Jamie Ramsay, production designer Helen Scott and composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch — that looks, feels and sounds like the heyday of those great British films of the ’50s, all the way to including the no-longer used “The End” to close things out.

Nighy in a role for which he will be remembered captures the soul of such an understated and reserved man (until he is unleashed), much in line with the demeanor of Japanese workers, a dignified presence but one that is blissfully understated. This is not a flashy performance on any level and that is what makes it so beautiful. The office associates Peter and Margaret are given a blooming romance that was not in the original in this way, and the role Sharp has is quite a bit more pronounced here. It is a nice addition I would bet Kurosawa would approve.  And I also bet he’d give Living a thumbs up.

Producers are the prodigious team of Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen for Number 9 Films (The Crying Game, Carol, Mothering Sunday). Sales agents are Rocket Science and CAA Finance.

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