Living review

An update on Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1951 film Ikiru, Living is one of the more low-key films of the year buoyed by a tremendous performance from star Bill Nighy.

Living doesn’t stray far from Ikiru’s formula with the biggest distinction of the setting. Stodgy 1950s London makes for a fitting backdrop for a film about a by-the-books civil servant.

Nighy (Love Actually) stars as Mr. Williams, a bureaucrat working at humorless, joyless office where paperwork goes to die or shuffled off to another department. When paperwork gets sent on a carousel of various departments, Williams frequently decides to hold it in a limbo pile as it won’t do any harm out of the way.

Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp, The Trial of the Chicago 7) is the newest member of Williams’ department. He’s young and idealistic enough to not be beaten down by the monotony of the job and its soul crushing pace.

living review - wakeling

Wakeling doesn’t know the rules of the train commute to the office — keep relatively quiet and avoid trying to bring any humor to the ride. Just read your newspaper and settle in for a long day’s work. And give Mr. Williams a courtesy nod when the train arrives at his station.

It’s a stuffy existence, but Wakeling is eager to prove his worth. Fortunately, the office scene isn’t all drab and boring as he takes a quick interest in the vivacious Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood, Sex Education), the one staff member unbothered by the stuffy and stale office dynamic.

living review - wakeling and margaret

For Nighy fans, his role proves a major departure from his usual flashy, bombastic on-screen presence work. He typically injecting his roles with an abundance of flair, charisma and energy.

With Mr. Williams, Nighy is tasked with doing more with far less of his usual tricks. Here it’s all about measured movements, deliberate gestures and an almost glacial delivery of dialogue. Think the sloth in Zootoopia. Williams’ energy level is barely above functional walking zombie.

This is an outstanding example of a measured, restrained performance. Nighy engages viewers not from some showy, scene-chewing gestures, but the reserved, calculated movements — that subtle pause as Williams carefully considers his words and actions. All while leaving enough mystery that viewers can speculate what’s going on in Williams’ head.


Everything changes for Williams when he receives a terminal diagnosis. Suddenly, endlessly churning through mountains of paperwork isn’t nearly as satisfying. It’s time for Williams to ask a real harsh truth — what legacy will he leave behind? Sure, he’s got a son, but he’s henpecked by his wife and seems destined to have as joyless and fruitless a life as his father.

Inspired by his younger staff members, Peter and Margaret, Williams decides it’s not too late to make a lasting difference — one that will endure long after he’s gone.

Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro keeps Williams’ goals simple. It wouldn’t feel true or believable for Williams to have this epiphany that drastically changes all aspects of his life. Instead of making some grand sweeping gesture, Williams focuses on a project that a group of women have passionately lobbied to get done for countless months — the installation of a children’s playground.

living review - the playground women

It’s the perfect target for Williams even as he faces the same ridiculous red tape that has prevented the women from making any progress on the playground. Williams notes he doesn’t have time to get angry, but in his own dogged persistent manner, tirelessly ensures the playground is completed.

While Williams takes things slowly, Director Oliver Hermanus (Beauty) probably could have infused a bit more energy into the film. Hermanus spends too much time establishing the robotic office culture that he’s not able to effectively shift for a livelier second act. There are some pockets of energetic moments though it takes until the final act for more creative, inspired scenes.

living review - mr. williams with staff


The main draw for Living is to take in an exquisitely restrained performance from Nighy that’s worthy of Oscar consideration. As for the rest of the film? It’s a solid, if slow watch and if nothing else might inspire a new generation to check out Ikiru.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics