Conventional wisdom says it's a bad idea to remake a classic. Fortunately, "Living" ignored that wisdom.
Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" is listed 72nd on Sight and Sound's 2022 director's poll of the 100 best movies and a re-watch confirms it has lost none of its luster. Check out the 1952 original, by all means, but don't overlook the tender British remake, "Living." It's especially worthwhile to catch the lead performance of Bill Nighy, who's likely to be a best actor contender when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 24.
Nighy, beloved as the aging rocker in "Love Actually," plays Mr. Williams in the 1950s-set drama. He's a mystery to his young co-workers, who have various theories about what makes him tick, but we quickly realize they can't figure out who he is because he hasn't figured it out himself. Only when Williams' doctor gives him months to live does he conclude that he must make the most of his limited time. And he can't wait to get started.
It makes sense that novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was hired to adapt "Ikiru," and not just because he and the late Kurosawa, who wrote and directed the original, are both from Japan. "Living" has a lot in common with Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," a masterpiece about a butler who realizes, too late, that he has lived a life of empty service. In many ways, "Living" is a more hopeful "Remains" in which the central character recalibrates his life, just in the nick of time.
Director Oliver Hermanus' film is as reserved as its main character. It draws us in by viewing Williams at a respectful remove, in the same way a whisper encourages us to lean in to hear. There's not a lot of plot in "Living," which follows Williams on a couple of fairly ordinary days, but it captures the textures of his life, becoming looser and more open as Williams prods himself to try new things.
That looseness is reflected in Nighy's elegant performance. His Mr. Williams uses language sparely and seems devoted to staying out of others' way but, as "Living" develops, he makes the character seem not just happier but freer.
If Williams seems like a brick wall in the movie's opening scenes, by the end Nighy reveals his character's eagerness to lap up the experiences he missed out on.
The full extent of Williams' transformation isn't clear until "Living" is over. That's the perfect touch in a movie about a man whose associates only begin to understand him after he's gone.
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for sexual situations and smoking.
Where: In theaters.