Film review: Living dares to remake a classic, and makes another – Calgary Herald

Bill Nighy is nigh-on perfect in a new version of the 1952 classic Ikiru; in fact, it feels like the movie was waiting for him
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Another week, another remake. January has already seen the Canadian release of A Man Called Otto, an excellent English do-over of the 2015 dark Swedish comedy A Man Called Ove, with Tom Hanks in the lead. This week brings Living, a British remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru, whose title is usually translated as To Live.

The basic beats of the film are the same. Blasé bureaucrat Williams (Bill Nighy) is a senior functionary marking time in a London Public Works office, where he handles paperwork the way a veterinarian might an injured bird, slipping an errant form into a cozy cubby and murmuring: “We can keep it here for now. It’ll do no harm.”
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Kurosawa’s film opened with the news, via omniscient narrator, that the character was dying. This version, adapted by Japanese-born British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, dispenses with that framing device and instead introduces a new character, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), just starting at the same department, and full of as much energy as we imagine Williams himself once possessed.

The elder bureaucrat soon learns that he is not long for this world. (One measure of the film’s genius is the way it imparts to the audience, far less clumsily than I am doing here, the news that this prognosis is for us all, later or sooner.) His reaction is perfectly minimal: “Quite.” And then he snaps into action, or at least what passes for action in such a staid character. First a trip to the seaside, with half his life savings, his quest for “a little fun” stymied by the realization that “I don’t know how.”

Then back to London, where he bumps into Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), late of his office, a woman who awakens in him – not quite a romantic interest, but a desire to see life through her young eyes, if only for a little while. This before the realization sets in that the only existence one ultimately has, to live or to lose, to waste or to widen, is one’s own.

Living was made by South African director Oliver Hermanus, but one feels Ishiguro’s imprint clearly upon the screenplay. Although primarily a novelist, he has written scripts, including for James Ivory’s 2005 movie The White Countess. And his novels Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day have been adapted into movies, the latter also directed by Ivory in what remains, 30 years later, one of the best page-to-screen transfers of all time.

There is much overlap between the characters of Stevens the butler (Anthony Hopkins) in Remains and Nighy’s bureaucrat in Living, though ultimately the newer film finds a more upbeat note on which to end, while losing nothing of its beautiful, melodious melancholy.

Even the timelines are similar. Remains takes place in 1958 (with flashbacks to the 1930s), while Living is set in 1953, making it contemporaneous with the Japanese original, which was of course set in what was then the present day.

In fact, it feels a bit as though this remake has been waiting all that time to be made. Ishiguro was born in 1954, while Nighy, just five years older, looks ideal in the role of the weather-beaten Williams. And his character’s exit from the picture is one of brisk, British efficiency, as he leads members of his department toward the site of a future playground that he hopes will be his legacy. “Chester Street. District Line to Stepney Green, and then a brisk walk.” Quite.

Living opens Jan. 20 in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, and Jan. 27 in Montreal, with other cities to follow.

 5 stars out of 5

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