Despite having his big movie break in his late 40s, Bill Nighy is one of those character actors who feels like he has been around forever, providing strong support in everything from Pirates of The Caribbean to Pride. In Living, he gets the rare chance to take the lead in a movie that may just be his finest performance.
Living is based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, and moves the story to 1953 London. Nighy plays Mr Williams, a stern bureaucrat known by his employees for his humourless manner. One day, he receives the news that he has a terminal illness, with a very short prognosis. Realising that he has never truly lived, he tries to learn from Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), a young secretary who makes the most of every moment.
The beauty of director Oliver Hermanus’ film is that it is surprising without being showy. It would be natural to assume that this is a light comedy where audiences can chuckle at a stone faced Nighy being ridiculous; or that Wood’s involvement is somehow romantic.
In truth, the story takes a much more subtle route. The message of happiness coming from small acts rather than Bucket List adventures is surprising and powerful. Framed exactly like a 50s drama, the stiff upper lip mentality of the characters makes each admission so much more devastatimg, as people who live in perpetual grey try to find the colour in their lives.
Nighy is the perfect choice for such understatement. There’s no leaping, Ebeneezer Scrooge type transformation, but rather a quiet awakening as the cold walls he puts up begin to crumble. Equally, Wood isn’t some idealised dream woman, she’s simply someone for whom living for the moment comes naturally. They make a terrific duo, bolstered by Tom Burke as an itinerant writer who introduces Williams to the wild side of life, and Alex Sharpe as a new hire who gives a more innocent view of the situation.
A masterful tear-jerker, Living stays with you thanks to an examination of life that avoids clichés. In an awards season packed with fine performances, Nighy must surely be confident of Oscar attention.
Living is in cinemas from 4th November