The story is set in London in the 1950s.
A young man, Peter Wakeling, is off on his first day of work in the London County Council’s works department. Waiting for the train, he’s recognised as the new boy by a group of fellow civil servants, who invite him to share ‘their’ carriage. These are Englishmen, with typically English reserve, and a wall of newspapers soon goes up to deter needless chat. But not before a figure appears at the carriage window and touches the brim of his bowler to them in the ritual daily greeting.
This is Mr Williams, the senior pen-pusher in the same department. ‘Will he be joining us in the carriage?’ asks Wakeling. ‘Oh no’, replies the only remotely sociable one, ‘he would never travel with us.’
Bill Nighy plays Williams. He’s a bit of a legend at work, not for anything he does, as Wakeling soon finds out, but because of his punctiliousness, his dignified demeanour, his impeccable grooming and manners. He’s the ultimate arbiter, at shop-floor level at least, of what work actually gets done and what gets shelved. Everyone’s a bit in awe of him, except for the sole female employee – young Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) – who cheekily whispers to Wakeling that the piles of files on everyone’s desk are known as ‘skyscrapers’, where various causes and petitions go to die because the Council can’t or won’t deal with them.
One such is a request from some local ladies to redevelop a bomb site into a children’s playground. This one’s being doing the rounds for ages, but new boy Wakeling is given the job on his first day of accompanying the ladies as for the umpteenth time they go from one buck-passing council department to the next and are fobbed off yet again. The file ends up on Mr Williams’ skyscraper.
Mr Williams leaves early one day – a notable event – for a doctor’s appointment. There he is given a diagnosis of terminal cancer and told he hasn’t got long to live. This knocks him for six, and he goes AWOL for the first time in his career, another unprecedented event that mystifies his colleagues and the son and daughter-in-law with whom he lives. He doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened.
Instead he takes out half his savings, buys sleeping pills and goes to a seaside resort town to end it all. But he can’t go through with it and ends up giving the sleeping medicine to Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke), a bohemian writer he overhears in a restaurant complaining about insomnia. This sympathetic stranger is the first person he tells.
Sutherland takes him for a night on the town to show him that life is sweet and worth living, even when there’s not much of it left. He gets drunk, they go to a strip joint, a saucy wench nicks his bowler hat and Sutherland talks him into buying a fedora from a street stall. He’s loosening up. So much so that at the last stop on their pub crawl he even bursts into song: “The Rowan Tree,” a Scottish folk song from his childhood.
This scene was powerfully moving. From here on in my eyes and cheeks were rarely dry, as Williams decides to return to life’s fray and do something useful before he dies.
At this point I will resist the temptation to relate more episodes from the plot, because there are just too many for me to do justice to this warm, life-affirming and deeply affecting movie. All the characters previously met play a role in his change of life, especially Miss Harris, an inherently optimistic and merry soul from whom he learns much about how life should be lived.
Eminent Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the screenplay, adapting it from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, which was in turn inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Both works deal with ageing and death.
Ishiguro, you may remember, wrote The Remains of The Day, which was also made into a film. Coming from a culture that was itself once rigidly hierarchical, he’s very good at depicting the class-based society that England was in the 1950s.
At an institution like the London County Council, this must have been especially so. All the employees are Mister or Miss or Mrs. No first names here. At one point Mr Williams happens to be in a corridor when the head bureaucrat from the top floor walks past. This is ‘Sir James’ someone, and Williams steps aside and bows his head. As with everything that happens in this movie, small things say a lot.
Ishiguro’s authorship also shows in the film’s notably Japanese visual aesthetic, which makes frequent use of aerial shots: a train moving at stately pace through the neat, snow-frosted English countryside; the councilmen assembled on the platform in their identical uniform of dark suits and bowler hats. My companion observed that they could well be Japanese salarymen. True.
Nighy was nominated for Best Actor at the recent Academy Awards, and the film was also nominated for Best Screenplay. I can’t say I think Nighy deserved the Oscar more than Brendan Fraser, who won it for The Whale. Fraser’s role was more of a stretch; Nighy wouldn’t have had to add much to his natural persona for a role tailor-made for him.
That said, I think Living is by far the better movie. As a story about a man facing death it is tone-perfect, not saccharine, not depressing, not self-consciously arty and in the end – well, you know, the Brits do this kind of thing so much better than anyone else.