The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema] - LIVING | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema] - LIVING

living review
Learning he has mere months to live, a repressed civil servant seeks joy in his final days.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Oliver Hermanus

Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke

living poster

In recent decades I've formed the opinion that British and Irish movies have become so blandly mid-Atlantic in their quest for the Yankee dollar that if British and Irish people wish to see themselves represented on screen they're better off watching Asian movies. The characters found in the films of Korea's Hong Sang-soo and Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda may live on the other side of the world, but they share common traits with the British and Irish, i.e they're an emotionally repressed lot who only open up after a few stiff drinks or upon receiving the news that they've been struck by a terminal illness. A couple of recent British and Irish movies have bucked the trend. Joanna Hogg's Souvenir films are so distinctly English that they feel like products of the past, while Colm Bairéad's Irish language drama The Quiet Girl has broken records in Ireland, finally giving Irish people the chance to see themselves on screen as they really are.

living review

My opinion is cemented by Living, which is English with a capital E despite being a remake of a Japanese film, Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru. It's also tellingly adapted by a screenwriter who is both English and Japanese, Kazuo Ishiguro, who penned the very English novel 'The Remains of the Day'. Kurosawa's film was inspired by Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich'. If you draw a line from London through Moscow to Tokyo, you'll find a lot of emotionally repressed men who need a few drinks to open up, or the news that they have mere months to live. The only time my late father displayed any outward emotion to his family was when he was preparing to undergo life-threatening surgery. It's not that he didn't love us, it's just that he was Irish. That's just how we are.


Living's protagonist, taciturn, some might say stuffy civil servant Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), receives a terminal diagnosis from his doctor and immediately decides he needs to start living. The trouble is, he doesn't have the faintest idea of what that entails. Disappearing from the office he has spent his adult life slogging away in, Williams takes a trip to a seaside town where he is taken under the wing of a beatnik played by Tom Burke (were the  movie set in the 1980s rather than the '50s you might surmise Burke is playing the same charming cad he memorably essayed in The Souvenir). The two spend a night drinking, with Williams even loosening up enough to belt out a Scottish folk tune, a hint at an otherwise unacknowledged Presbyterian streak in the dying man. But ultimately, Williams decides he's simply having other people's idea of fun rather than his own.

living review

Returning to London, Williams bumps into his former underling, the young Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood). Margaret is looking for a reference for her new employer, so Williams takes her to a fancy tearoom while he writes a glowing appraisal of her time serving in his office. It's simply an excuse to spend an afternoon in the company of someone who seems to have figured out happiness in a way he never could himself, of course. Despite Margaret's discomfort at the idea of spending time with an older man (which isn't personal but rather motivated by apprehension about "what people might say"), the two form a platonic friendship, with Williams learning to live from the younger woman.


On the surface Williams might be dismissed as a horny old man enduring an end of life crisis, but the film quickly dispels any such notion. It's subtly hinted that the last time Williams experienced joy was while his mother was alive, and rather than a potential lover, he appears to view Margaret in a maternal light. Nurses will tell you that older men on their deathbeds will often mistake them for their mothers, and while their interactions may occur in bustling pubs rather than a solemn ward, the dynamic is much the same between Williams and Margaret. The relationship between the two plays out like a "nicecore" alternative to Phantom Thread, and it's a pleasure to spend time in their company.

living review

Less engaging is a Capra-esque sub-plot that sees Williams embark on a crusade to fulfil the dream of a group of working class women who wish to have a playground erected in their neighbourhood. It feels more befitting an American movie starring Tom Hanks rather than this otherwise very English film, and Living's closing 15 minutes make for a somewhat clunky tribute to its protagonist. Prior to that, the film dared to portray Williams as far from a saint (one scene sees him engage in the sort of casual racism and sexism that was true to the era), so it feels odd when the movie closes out with an emotionally overwrought elegy involving a policeman coming to tears at his recollection of Williams. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but you'll have to excuse me. I'm Irish. That's just how we are.

Living is in UK/ROI cinemas now.



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