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REVIEW – “Living”: A Sluggish, Whimsical Discovery for Purpose

Bill Nighy as Williams in LIVING. Photo credit: Jamie D. Ramsay. Courtesy of Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics.

Cinematic familiarity breeds mild suspension of expectation, particularly on more astute or cerebral occasions. That’s perhaps the last thing I’d find myself saying about a frothy period drama, bordering on the personal. Let alone one with roots in unlikely source material. In the case of Living, its profundity is well assured with the influence of Kurosawa – Ikiru, specifically. Though even without knowing much about the famed Japanese auteur personally, one cannot deny its flighty originality, and the footprints director Oliver Hermanus is keen to echo, not altogether replicate, with a wide-eyed and intelligent sense of optimism. And a matching sense of hesitancy to go that extra mile.

As life passes by, we may wonder what sort of impact to leave behind after we’re gone. That’s the crux of Rodney Williams’ (Bill Nighy) eloquent plight. It’s 1953, he’s relishing his strict bureaucratic work inside London’s Public Works office. He accepts his penchant for routine, riding the rails to work and back with nary a word. He knows to stay in his lane, or department, even as inefficiencies surface – Namely the development of a new neighborhood playground, stalling under new management. And he recognizes the coldness of mortality standing behind him, privately battling a terminal illness, hiding it from even his son Michael (Barney Fishwick), already stressed with the need to move his dad out of his flat. The situation placed before Mr. Williams prompts him to examine his life through a deep mirror of thought, inspiring him to aim for better, louder, more confident, and more joyful as the days loon shorter.

The very idea of living one’s best life on screen has always arrived with varied results. To go outlandish, even comic, is to go to an unwelcome extreme. Director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie), with screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), comfortably navigates the other end of that spectrum, going subtle, quiet, and highly empathic with zero cheap shots. While not exactly pulling an enigmatic or career-defining performance out of Nighy, we do find his most composed and clerical as a leading man type. The kind of character not hiding his desperation but channeling it with revived initiative and newfound friendships.

Call it character building of the most fruitful kind; something Nighy has excelled in over the years, often with a cranky demeanor. Not to be found here, thankfully. The esteemed actor breezes along with graceful fragility. That tends to be a point Hermanus overemphasizes as much as Williams’ menial day-to-day. Does it sour the mood? Not quite, but it never makes a huge effort to disrupt its delicate pattern. Living does stay on a singular track, even as the lead finds his defenses mellowing, aided by coworker Margaret (a delightful Aimee Lee Wood).

Even as Hermanus skirts with slowly materializing character development, it’s only a small victory against a methodically moving tale. The kind whose deeper meaning doesn’t venture beyond pull quotes from a motivational website. It’s still directed proficiently, invoking a grand richness, if not also the brisk cynicism of old-school London. Though there’s not too much of that idea to match his aspiration. Sandy Powell’s (The Irishman) period accurate costume work takes great aid with the visual end, composer Emelie Levienaise-Farrouch (Censor) on the auditory end with strings plenty. Hermanus’s sense of focus isn’t ever dull; nor is his lasered workmanship, Nighy making for a capable, complex collaborator. The pair leave this tale growingly heartfelt. With stakes underwritten, however, the central disposition doesn’t entirely match the star actor’s quick flexibility to move from stoic clamshell to outgoing butterfly.

If there were an MVP to rival Nighy’s strengths, it’s the script he carefully interprets on the fly. Ishiguro’s words speak greater echoes throughout, once more returning to a realm he finds casual. The novelist had made a name for himself by interpolating classical English characteristics and often reflecting on his childhood, and his love for cinema in the process. His clear adoration for Kurosawa, and to a smaller extent his Merchant-Ivory connections, willfully propels the momentum of his script to a precise fault. And yet, it’s difficult not to see that hesitation to outpace inspiration.

It might not have hurt to, say, keep motivation as prompt throughout as they begin. What I feel starts off as a swell piece of character-driven diatribe, stalls in first gear with only occasional deviation to poignant, oft-tearjerking drama. The message arrives too easily with both Nighy and Hermanus in Living, the measure of how one’s life is assessed, even as and after time runs terminal. Though it’s no less (or more, for that matter) impactful of a core message, giving all its heart to the moment and making it stick over its 100-plus minutes, inciting a few tears and smiles, coming close to far more substantial emotion but never crossing that line. I do wish it had; a deeply profound tale of purpose can’t play on simplistic British gruffness alone. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Living, currently in a platform release, plays Seattle’s Egyptian Theater beginning January 20, with wide expansion January 27; rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and smoking; 102 minutes.