Life, you may have noticed, doesn’t really come with a manual.
We have to make the best of it we can, usually, and for most people, that means putting one foot in front of the other, getting a job, making a family of some kind and finding small moments of happiness when responsibility and obligation aren’t knocking on the door.
If we are asked, we would readily agree we are living a fine life, but the reality is, somewhere along the way, save for those with the will to fashion the life of their dreams from ambition and hope they never discarded when young, we all fall into a rut that looks like the real thing but often isn’t, and which often defies revelation or epiphany until traumatic comes out way to shake us from complacency.
Mr. Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy in a powerfully understated performance), the protagonist of Living (set in 1953), based on 1952’s Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, would know precisely what that looks and feels like, a longstanding civil servant of some rank in English local government who, along with similarly clad men in suits and bowler hats, makes his way to his soulless job down in and down out, likely unaware somewhere deep down that he is unhappy but not having the inclination or wherewithal to examine it any further.
His is an existence marked by an almost choreographed routine – one of the poetic hallmarks of Living is how director Oliver Hermanus turns things like a sea of commuters streaming onto train platforms into something beautifully balletic even though, in reality, it is nothing of the kind; the artfully unthinking choreography simply underscores how dead in their routines these people really are – a job which pivots far more on denial and indecision, to himself and the people he serves, than it does on positivity and affirmation.
We see just how deadly dull and yet cruelly unexamined his life and career is, initially through newcomer to the department Mr. Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) who arrives on the train platform with far more puppy dog enthusiasm than anyone else around him and whose garrulous thrill to be starting a new, important job is soon challenged by his colleagues, with whom he commutes every day, who, enslaved by hierarchy and protocol, simply place keep going, with no real sense of why they do it.
All they have is the how, the strict set of rules that govern who sits where, who talks to whom and what can be done when which, in the sclerotic world of the local council where Williams, Wakeling and the others work, are the only sign that anything they do is given even the slightest bit of conscious thought.
Mr. Williams, like so many with whom he works, seems destined to live and die in this mindless mass of hierarchical obligation until a terminal cancer diagnosis shows him instantly out of his deadening lethargy, shaking him awake suddenly to how little living he is actually doing.
His first thought, sadly, is to commit suicide – with sleeping pills at a seaside resort town which sounds Shakespearianly romantic until he can’t go through with it, realising it’s just another way to kill himself, literally this time – but shaken from that by an insomniac writer Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke) who takes him out on the town for a night that pays no heed to propriety or expectation (it just is), Mr. Williams decide he is going to live in a way he has never done before.
His new life of lunches at grand cafes and afternoons spent wandering through parks in the sunshine sweeps up former employee, Miss Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) who is scandalised a little by accompanying a man much older than herself on social settings in a time when that was most certainly not the done thing, but mostly intrigued why a man so bound by convention and routine is now casting it all aside in one swift movement, failing to even alert work that he’s not coming in.
Living is a quietly powerful revelation because it’s entire narrative simply unspools without fuss or melodrama, with even moments like a confrontation, such as it is in the repressed English society of the time, with his son and daughter-in-law Michael and Fiona (Barney Fishwick and Patsy Ferran) petering out to nothing, reflective of the way that life, despite our best efforts, often swallows up even the big epic moments.
But in the midst of all of this fossilised nothingness where people are surviving far more than they are living, the one revelatory dynamic is that of Mr. Williams, who with characteristic taciturn turn of phrase and a predilection for understatement even when death is stalking him, with all the existential fear and epiphanic change that entails, decides that now is his time to make something of his existence.
In amongst all the teas and walks, however, something quite beautifully wonderful happens.
A group of local women, led by Mrs Smith (Lia Williams) – you get a feeling for how much of a straitjacket world Mr. Williams lives in and how great his act of rebellion to the established order by the fact that all the characters are mow primarily by their honorifics – who have been trying to get the county authorities to turn a WW2 bomb site into a park for what feels like forever, bumped from one department to another without anyone doing a thing to act on their request.
But awakened by his need to do something beyond indulging his need for a break from rigour and routine, Mr. Williams sets out to make their dream come to fruition, an act that transforms the final act of Living into something quietly but wondrously lifechanging.
There is so much life and hope and wondrous expectation packed into a film that, at its heart, is about someone facing the end of everything they have ever known and finding, in those final few months, that they have neglected to do any real living at all.
That might sound terribly sad, and in some ways it is with melancholy and regret hanging heavy in the narrative air; but there’s also a real energising beauty to the story which, with grace and nuanced care, celebrates what it is to come alive even when it is close to running out.
It’s impossible to get to the end of this remarkably beautiful and surprisingly buoyant film, the final scene of which, a touching conversation between Mr. Wakeling and a policeman as they survey the park Mr Williams wills into being in one last burst of DOING SOMETHING, is just exquisitely lovely in so many ways, without feeling utterly moved and changed to act on the impulse to truly live, and you can only hope, unlike Mr. Williams’ colleagues, that the urge to reinvent things lasts longer than a post-funeral imperative and that you truly do go out and LIVE.