Movie review

Sundance 2022: When You Finish Saving the World, Living, Call Jane | Festivals & Awards

Much more confident and nuanced is Oliver Hermanus“Living,” a moving elegy on the value of life based on one of the best films ever made, Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” That’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but I still found grace and value in this update because of the attention to detail and emotional current of the people who made it. Bluntly, it helps a great deal to validate your remake if you have a Nobel Prize-winning author doing the adaptation, and Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day,” “Never Let Me Go”) transports the story of Kurosawa’s masterpiece to post-WWII Japan in a way that feels genuine. Ishiguro’s script is a beauty, but it’s the manner in which Bill Nighy conveys its subtle beats that elevates “Living.” I doubt I’ll see a better performance at Sundance, and it’s likely to be one that lingers with me through 2022. It’s career-best work from a phenomenal actor.

Nighy plays a buttoned-up bureaucrat named Williams in 1953 London. We meet him on the same day that Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) starts working in his office filled with stacks of paper and a policy of red tape. Williams is soft-spoken and particular, a creature of such habit that he has become defined by his routine instead of his emotions. This changes when he receives a terminal diagnosis, spinning off his axis. He first endeavors to live life in the short time he can, meeting a barfly named Sutherland (Tom Burke), with whom he has a boozy night that ends in an emotional song. He’s then drawn to the only woman in his office, Ms. Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), thinking she can show him the value of life before he’s unable to spend it. He learns what really matters is the influence we have on others and what we leave behind.

Of course, this is familiar to fans of “Ikiru,” but the restrictions of Japanese culture unpacked in that film translate well to repressed old England in the early 1950s, and 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. There’s so much going on under the surface of this performance that it puts so many of the showy cancer drama turns to shame. This is how a man like Williams ends his life, in a way that you won’t forget.

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