Sundance 2022: Oliver Hermanus' Ravishing 'Ikiru' Remake 'Living'
by Alex Billington
February 1, 2022
"I don't know what I've been doing with my life all these years." It's time to start living! I finally watched the Akira Kurosawa classic Ikiru (from 1952) just last year, and of course it's wonderful. I had no idea that the film was getting a remake for its 70th anniversary, and I didn't even realize this new film is that remake until I caught others chatting about it during the festival. Living just premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and it is indeed a remake of Ikiru, with multiple references in the opening credits to Kurosawa and the film's original writers - Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. South African director Oliver Hermanus worked with Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro (!!) to adapt and update the 1952 script, and create this new film set in London instead of Japan. And I am very happy to report this is one of those rare remakes that is as good as the original. Critics have been raving about it, and yes it deserves the praise.
Living is almost a shot-for-shot remake of Ikiru, with only a few scenes changed, and a few other differences based on the creative choices made by director Oliver Hermanus. This new version is also set in the 50s, but takes place in London not in Tokyo. This new version once again focuses on a careless city government worker that manages the Public Works office, who learns he has cancer and won't be around much longer. Combined with the arrival of a new employee, this awakens something deep inside of him - a desire to really live and find happiness and find meaning in his boring little life in the last few months he has left on this planet. This time around, Bill Nighy stars as Williams, playing the role of the grumpy old man that Takashi Shimura played in Kurosawa's original film. The rest of it is also quite similar, right down to the playground project he takes on as his final triumph and friendship he strikes up with one of his one young co-workers.
Even though I'd already seen every other critic talking about how fantastic this film is before I had a chance to watch it at the end of the festival, and even though I'd only seen Ikiru for my first time last year, I still fell in love with this one. It's a magnificent, engrossing, deeply moving film. Hermanus' filmmaking style lends itself perfectly to this story. His update on Ikiru is utterly gorgeous and emotionally gratifying. The elegant 50s filmmaking style fits perfectly with this heartrending story of an old man realizing too late he's never really lived. Hermanus even replicates the look and feel of cinema at the time, with a condensed aspect ratio and grainy film-stock vibe. All his music choices and the sweeping score by composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch give it the emotional depth it needs to properly tell this story with a modern edge. I expected I'd love it, but you never know until you watch it. And it is one of Bill Nighy's finest performances of his career.
Nighy is an incredibly talented actor who has been in over 70 films already. We all know what he's capable of, but he still continues to impress us with an impeccable role in Living. Nighy's performance is especially spectacular in that it encapsulates both sides of this dour character. In the beginning he needs to be grumpy, distant, emotionless, and insensitive; but by the end of the film you need to feel that his spark has returned, and he's found something hiding deep inside of him that has encouraged him to go make a difference in the world. He handles both of these dimensions with grace, and is entirely convincing as both a grump and as a late bloomer. His chemistry with the spunky Aimee Lou Wood as Margaret Harris is also palpable, which is an important part of this story. He doesn't relate to or admire anyone else around him, so we must believe in his connection with her or it won't feel authentic. Their scenes together are some of the best in the film.
There are a few scenes that bothered me in Kurosawa's film (mainly the drawn out ending) and Hermanus' update of these scenes is pretty much perfect. There are also a few scenes that bothered me in this film, but they don't take away from the emotional impact of the entire experience. The timeless lesson of Ikiru is that we need to stop living our lives for our work and start really living for other people – helping & supporting them, listening to them, caring about them, even if they aren't your own family. And the trick of this film is that through this story of a man who figures that out too late, only waking up in the last few months of his life, we're supposed to realize that we shouldn't wait until it's too late. We need to stop and reflect and make changes now. As riveting as this story is, it can only be a great film if it makes that impact on the audience.