Review: ‘Living’ is a remarkably pointless rendition of an all-time classic

“Living,” the British remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” excels in being just that, but unfortunately offers nothing new. 

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“Living,” the latest film by Oliver Hermanus, is a British adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” (Ross Ferguson. Courtesy of Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics)

Yezen Saadah, Deputy News Editor

South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus’ latest film, “Living,” is a British adaptation of the 1952 masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa, “Ikiru.” It is a story about Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), an the head of a public works department who searches for the meaning of life after learning he has stomach cancer. In “Ikiru,” Kurosawa skillfully navigates the six-months-left-to-live trope — which often feels overdone in an age of cinema rife with melodrama and cliche — and ensures the film has an enduring emotional impact through its elegance and humanity. On the other hand, Hermanus’ version rarely exudes these qualities, most egregiously in its presentation. 

Jamie Ramsay’s enchanting cinematography is pristine in its masterful simplicity. From the very beginning, the camera beautifully captures the busy streets of 1953 London and the crowded train stations by which people navigate their conformed and uniform post-World War II lives. This is shown through a young civil servant, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), who is new to his office job and is faced with a group of men who are all dressed the same. The theme of conformity is more prevalent in Hermanus’ film than in Kurosawa’s, allowing “Living” to take this tried-and-tested concept in new, effective directions. 

One of Hermanus’ choices that diverges from the original is in its characters, who genuinely empathize with Williams. Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), Williams’ only female coworker, is upbeat and full of life. As Williams spends more time with Harris, playing arcade games, going to the movies and taking walks, he discloses to her that he doesn’t have much time left to live. 

As he describes his infatuation with her youthful energy, she is immediately moved to tears. Wood’s great performance is what makes this pair’s dynamic work and adds a subtle layer to the film that the original doesn’t have. Nighy also gives a very strong performance, with his delicate emotional expressions and existential introspection. Still, it isn’t quite on the same level as Takashi Shimura’s excellent performance as Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru.”

British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Living” screenplay is eloquently written. There are moments of poeticism elevated by the film’s alluring visual style. However, the dialogue becomes noticeably cheeky and melodramatic as Williams’ story progresses, giving the impression that Ishiguro is merely attempting to replicate Kurosawa’s work. By the same token, the musical score for the film is unnecessarily omnipresent and becomes increasingly sentimental as the narrative develops.

The biggest mistake “Living” makes is its hellbent intention to affirm its Britishness. Ishiguro mentioned that he has always wanted someone to make a British version of “Ikiru,” but the reasoning behind this desire is quite confusing and oxymoronic, since “Ikiru” doesn’t resonate due to it being Japanese. Thus, the ridiculous notion of reimagining a film through the lens of a different culture proves to be meaningless, contradicting the universality of Kurosawa’s work and the transcendent message of “Ikiru.”

“Living” promotes itself as a reimagining of Kurosawa’s classic. However, calling it a remake, plain and simple, would be more appropriate. Despite the film’s delightful camerawork and Nighy’s amazing performance, the film’s narrative follows the same beat and carries the same messages as the original. 

As Williams progresses on his journey of self-discovery, he learns that it is life’s fleetingness that makes it so special. He learns to make the most of the time he’s given by making a change in the face of death. As sincere a message as that is, it isn’t original, and it most certainly isn’t executed in a unique way. In the end, “Living” is “Ikuri” dialed down — the same exact film, only less powerful and stirring. 

Contact Yezen Saadah at [email protected]