It’s undeniable and almost exhausting when speaking about the insurmountable influence that legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa has had throughout film history; his work reverberating into various remakes or just films taking big inspiration. Those works have appeared throughout the decades, but in our current time of studios almost obsessively redeveloping/revamping older intellectual properties, it feels at least a little better to see someone trying their hand at Kurosawa material. Enter Oliver Hermanus’ Living, the South African filmmaker’s remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru. From the start, that’s already a tricky assignment, but Hermanus more than rises to the task; more than justifying his film’s existence as it rewardingly shifts the story to a new location and subtlety draws links between the previous setting of post-World War II reconstruction Japan and Britain’s own Post-war reconstructive predicament.
When remaking such a classic it probably helps a little bit to have a Nobel Prize-winning author handling your adaptation, and that’s exactly what Hermanus has here, as author-screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro validates this telling by putting his touch on things. What does relatively stay the same is the protagonist, who in Living is again a widowed bureaucrat who’s been so hardened by grief that his younger employees assume that he’s actually incapable of human feeling. His name is Williams and he’s played here by an affecting Bill Nighy in role that asks the oft-charming actor to tuck away within himself. Williams is man of deep routine, as he boards the train into London every morning in his pinstripe suit, every day sitting perched between the paper skyscrapers in his office like a civil-servant gargoyle, ready to pass the buck whenever a flock of housewives come to petition his office to turn a patch of WWII rubble into a playground, and every night he sits alone in the dark of his son’s living room, where he’s very much an unwanted guest.
Williams’ existence is sustained by the sheer inertia of that repetition, a cycle further enlivened by Jamie Ramsay’s transportively velvet cinematography. It’s way a of life that millions of people have come and gone through. And if Williams were capable of laughing, he’d probably let out a hearty chuckle upon hearing the office’s newest hire (Alex Sharp) announce that he “hopes to make a difference.” What does make a difference for Williams though is the news that his stomach pains are far more serious than he thought. And, in a alteration to the material, Hermanus takes this diagnosis and displays how it at first makes Williams’ upper lip even stiffer. When he doesn’t show up for work the next day, his absence is greeted by an even mix of confusion and relief. Only Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), the lone woman in the office, appears concerned — she needs Williams to write her a reference letter so that she might go work somewhere else.
From there, Living arranges itself into a parable-like portrait of personal awakening, as Williams does his best to try and find what exactly his purpose was or could be on Earth. A chance encounter with a local socialite (Tom Burke) leads to a rowdy night on the town, but Williams is haunted by the reflection he finds at the bottom of every bottle. Likewise, a run-in with Margaret sparks an unexpected friendship, but neither of them are honest about what they hope to gain from it. Through it all, Nighy imbues his character with such grace that we don’t question the fact that we’ve seen this story before. He doesn’t lean into the extremes of the reserved “gentleman” that Williams admits he simply wanted to be or the potential drama of the story of a man facing mortality. His performance is filled with minor beats, small choices wherein we can see emotion crossing his face. Maybe it’s a memory, a regret, a wish — we don’t know, but we don’t have to know. At one point, one of Ikiru’s key scenes, which involved a buzz-killing performance of the Japanese ballad “Gondola no Uta,” is swapped out for Nighy doing a rendition of the Scottish folk tune “Oh Rowan Tree.” It’s a fittingly melancholic replacement for a remake that does a nice job of reimagining some of its original parts while also cutting others — Living impressively captures the distinct monotony of the working middle class, while still being over forty minutes shorter than Ikiru.
That may sound like a more economical type of storytelling, but Hermanus still fulfills his film with the sense of length and an unexpected shape that’s needed for such a story. His movie remains a low-key tale that hinges on a humble act and honors the sense of discovery engendered by its structure. And where both the individual film’s story beats remain to have some Capra-esque themes of human virtue, Hermanus finds enormous poise in his own formal contributions, incorporating tactile colors that feel partially in the vein of mid-century melodramas and staging of scenes that provide visual poetry to the proceedings. If there’s an even larger authorial signature, to level up to Kurosawa’s own mastery, it’s Hermanus’ facility for conveying repression, and his feel for how harsh forces can impede merely “living.” But maybe most important of all is how Hermanus shows an understanding that Ikiru might be the most timeless of Kurosawa’s films; a work that captures how we all fade away in due time. And in a time when nostalgic IP is continually churned out only to fade into the ether of disposability, it’s movies like Living that display how an actual retelling can work; a timeless song sung in a distinct, complementary key. Distinctly retelling a classic tale, Living finds lyrical, borderline mesmerizing new notes to play in its elegiac form; tactilely evoking the ecstasy of life and how easily forgotten one’s existence can be.
Living premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking distribution.