Routine can be as dangerous as it is comforting. Almost everyone in “Living” has a daily ritual so razor-sharp in its accuracy that the slightest deviation threatens to cause chaos. Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a bureaucrat who has gone through life adhering to a specific regimen, one we will see several times.
Every morning, a line of proper British gentlemen adorn the platform of the train that will take them through the English countryside to London’s County Hall. They have names like Rusbridger (Hubert Burton) and Wakeling (Alex Sharp). Mr. Williams is their boss, and everyone reports to an intimidating figure named Sir James (Michael Cochrane).
The men are carbon copies of a particular ideal, dressed in sharp suits, pinstriped or plain, complete with impeccably knotted tie, perfectly folded pocket square, and the same hat they have worn since time immemorial. They sit quietly in the train car, reading crisply folded newspapers as the landscape scrolls by in the windows.
Like clockwork, Mr. Williams gets on the train the stop after his subordinates do. He never sits with them, a fact they acknowledge to Wakeling, the newbie in their midst. It’s his first day at County Hall, where he will push the same papers around every day until he is as old as his boss.
One of the few characters in the film to have a first name (it’s Peter), Wakeling is full of youthful enthusiasm, which his co-workers immediately combat by sending him on his first futile office endeavor. Three women who have been petitioning the county to turn an old, rundown area into a playground have been sent to the wrong department. They belong in the parks department. Wakeling is assigned to escort them there.
Of course, they were sent to Mr. Williams’s office by the parks department — these poor ladies have been getting the same runaround for months. Bureaucracy, after all, is a prime example of strictly-adhered-to routines that ultimately prove useless. You’re either a cog in the machine or the thing that gets crushed between them as they turn.
And so it goes, the same pattern day after day, until suddenly it doesn’t. Mr. Williams makes a slight deviation in his workday: He leaves early. His colleagues are stunned. It’s implied that he hasn’t taken a day off in decades, let alone cut his day short. It’s practically a scandal, which amuses Miss Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), one of the few women in his office and, along with Wakeling, one of the youngest employees.
What County Hall’s finest doesn’t know is that Mr. Williams has a doctor’s appointment. The results of his tests are not good. He has terminal cancer and will die within six months. “It’s never easy, this,” says the doctor. Mr. Williams’s stoic response to this news shows the viewer how tightly bottled up he is. He simply responds, “quite.”
And with one word, Bill Nighy breaks your heart.
If you’re familiar with Akira Kurosawa, you might recognize that “Living” is a remake of his 1952 film “Ikiru” (”To Live”), one of the saddest and most poignant movies ever made. Kazuo Ishiguro’s script is a faithful adaptation, and he’s the perfect choice for the job. The Japanese novelist who grew up in England wrote the quintessential book about repressed Brits, “The Remains of the Day.” Mr. Williams’s unwavering commitment to work is a trait he shares with that novel’s main character, Stevens.
Every frame in “Ikiru” looks like an ethereal black-and-white photograph. Rather than attempt to emulate those visuals, director Oliver Hermanus takes a different approach. His film looks like something that would have been churned out by a British movie studio in 1953, right down to its opening-credits font and near-fullscreen aspect-ratio lensing by cinematographer Jamie Ramsay. Chris Wyatt’s editing echoes the period with a deliberate pace that avoids quick cuts.
As in “Ikiru,” Mr. Williams attempts to reboot his life after decades of static repetition. He does not tell his son of his condition, opting instead to take a beachfront vacation. There, he meets Sutherland (Tom Burke), a pleasure-seeker who takes the older man on an evening of drinking and mild debauchery. The evening proves that hedonism isn’t Mr. Williams’s cup of tea, but it does provide us the pleasure of hearing Nighy’s haunting rendition of the traditional Scottish song “The Rowan Tree.”
More successful is Miss Harris’s brief friendship with her former boss. Williams is attracted not to her beauty but to her joie de vivre. It’s as if by being in her presence, he hopes some of her youthful optimism will serve as a corrective for a life he now knows has been wasted. She tells him the nickname his coworkers have for him, Mister Zombie. In return, she’s the only one he tells of his illness. Nighy and Wood play this scene delicately, earning our tears without manipulation.
How Mr. Williams proves to himself that his life had merit will be a big surprise to newcomers to this material. It’s a sweet gesture, but it’s also a quite pointed condemnation of those County Hall colleagues who do not learn from the example he sets once he returns to work.
“Living” acknowledges the bitter irony of impending death bringing a man back to life. Nighy makes it look effortless; he gives an Oscar-worthy performance that made me cry almost as much as Takashi Shimura did in Kurosawa’s classic.
Directed by Oliver Hermanus. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, based on the film “Ikiru” by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Bill Nighy, Alex Sharp, Aimee Lou Wood, Tom Burke, Hubert Burton. 102 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square. PG-13 (clearly an MPA overreaction)
Read more recent stories from film critic Odie Henderson:
- ‘Corsage’: All about Elisabeth | ★★1/2
- ‘Women Talking’ speaks volumes | ★★★★
- ‘M3GAN,’ worth its weight in memes, is a scream | ★★★
- Tom Hanks is Forrest Grump in ‘A Man Called Otto’ | ★★
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.