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British Film Institute (BFI), 2022


Oliver Hermanus / Kazuo Ishiguro, Akira Kurosawa, and Shinobu Hashimoto

Reading Time:

5 minutes

LivingWarmth And Wonder (W39SX3IRSVIEESNK)
00:00 / 05:05

📷 : Used with permission, 80smovielove



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Movies and TV shows with low-key characters

Chris Chaisson


We hear the phrase, “Live every day like it’s your last,” more times than we probably care to. Nonetheless, few people actually take this advice to heart or even reflect on its meaning. In truth, most people with reasonable means interpret the idiom to mean “make reckless decisions.” Quit your job. Go cliff diving. Streak across a football field. One could examine this behavior in the subgenre I call “bucket list movies.” In these stories, the protagonists learn that they have a limited time left to live and respond by partaking in the exhilarating experiences that they have always put off. They abandon their daily routines to travel, skydive, ski or mountain climb. The overall message of the movies is to not let day-to-day tasks prevent you from pursuing every adrenaline rush you can.

A person receiving such grim news, however, does not have to let it be a nudge to go bungee jumping. An equally and maybe even more interesting character may take time to figure out what lasting impression he or she would like to leave, choosing a different route than thrill-seeking. Prioritizing their own happiness will never be viewed as a sin for such a protagonist. But a character investing his or her time in the happiness and well-being of others is also worthy of appreciation. Enter Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy, About Time), the central character of Oliver Hermanus’s new British drama Living.

Adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, Living drops its audience into the daily routine of Mr. Williams, a widower and septuagenarian managing the public works department of the London County Council. As one of the longer-tenured members in the office, Mr. Williams serves as the physical embodiment of aloofness. In fact, in the opening sequence, he tips his hat to his colleagues through the train window from the platform, but then commutes to work on his own. While he is not alone in lacking the desire to socialize with his co-workers, he maintains the same emotional distance in every other aspect of his life: his work, his hobbies (he has none), and even his child. Though he lives with his son, they do not often interact or spend time together. The newer members of his team, Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) and Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp, The Trial of the Chicago 7), bear a quiet admiration for him but clearly wish to establish a connection. 

Mr. Williams’s propensity for solitude seems in part dictated by the nature of his government job, where very little is seen through to completion. Often, projects and approvals get tossed around from department to department and put off to no end, frustrating proactive residents. Existing day-to-day, week-to-week in a work culture where accomplishments are rare, sheds light on the workers’ apathy and frustration. After a typical day at the office, Mr. Williams heads to the doctor for a follow-up visit, during which he is informed he is terminally ill and has only a few months to live. He takes the evening to process the information, quietly mourn and decide whether to share the unfortunate news before continuing on with his daily routine.

For the rest of the film, Mr. Williams goes on an emotional journey to find what will bring him the most peace in his final days. He first goes the usual thrill-seeking route after sharing his diagnosis with a complete stranger, who takes him gallivanting into the local nightlife. After confiding in Margaret and leaning on her for emotional support, he reflects on his time spent since his diagnosis and decides on one last mission to see through to the end. Mr. Williams spends his remaining time using his influence to complete what he deems as a worthwhile, community-changing project. 

Scene to scene, Living may not provide the adrenaline rush that you would get from a bucket list movie in which the protagonist turns into Evel Knievel. Nevertheless, it grants its audience a new perspective on living out one’s final days. Rather than existing as if you have nothing to lose, strive to give back as if you have everything to lose. Exhilarating extracurricular activities can bring us temporary highs, but Nobel Prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro seems to suggest that acts of selflessness can bring us just as much fulfillment before we perish, and in the case of Mr. Williams, also a legacy of persistence.

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