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‘Living’ Film Review: Bill Nighy Shines in Elegant ‘Ikiru’ Remake

Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro does right by Kurosawa’s classic about a bureaucrat facing his own mortality

Remakes don’t have to suffer from a dearth of ideas. Sometimes, material is strong enough to be fortified by new players, a different setting and judicious alterations. Theater has always thrived on this, but with the longevity of movies affecting our memories differently and exerting a kind of precious permanence, any new film of something — especially a beloved something — naturally has a harder road toward acceptance.

The uphill scenario for “Moffie” filmmaker Oliver Hermanus’ stately post–World War II English drama “Living” is that the original is a humanist classic from a film giant: Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru” (“To Live”), the story of an aged bureaucrat who, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, faces the emptiness of his life and takes on one final, affirming task.

What “Living” has going for it — which is more than enough to matter and to allow it to still have impact — is a precisely adapted screenplay by Nobel Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day,” “Never Let Me Go”), a locale that can draw on what’s uniquely stiff and stoic about Britain’s institutional mindset, a throwback visual approach nostalgically reminiscent of British films of the period, and most essentially, one of the UK’s great acting treasures — Bill Nighy — as this version’s mummified civil service dead-ender, Mr. Williams.

A pin-striped, tight-lipped cog heading an ineffectual public-works department in central London, Mr. Williams is as blandly forbidding to his staff as the mountains of paperwork on everyone’s desks. When a midday appointment with his doctor reveals a timer on his life, returning to the cold routine that’s defined him for decades is suddenly the last thing on his mind. Perched in the dark later at home, where his son (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran, “Mothering Sunday”) openly bemoan his stifling stinginess, he stays mum about his condition.

The next day, Mr. Williams decamps to the seaside, where the first person he tells is someone completely unlike him: a libertine playwright (Tom Burke, “The Souvenir: Part 1”) who drags Williams out on a nightlife bender. Returning to London, he develops a chaste infatuation with youthful, cheery Margaret (a superb Aimee Lou Wood, Netflix’s “Sex Education”), a former employee of his whose spirit sparks him to open up about his misspent years chasing the detached ideal of a rank-and-file “gentleman.” Finally accepting the meaning in his mortality, he then turns toward fulfilling a project meant to outlast him, one that will also memorialize a truth about living that he learned just in time.

Perhaps crucially, since Ishiguro is a lifelong admirer of “Ikiru,” “Living” retains the bifurcated temporal structure of the Kurosawa film and its brilliant use of present and remembrance, not to mention the devastating lyricism of the final images. But the rest of “Living” is its own culturally alert distillation, admirably transposing (in scene work and dialogue) the original’s dissection of post-war Japanese society to a repressive Britain on its own cautious mend.

Doing their part to capture that atmosphere under Hermanus’ refined direction are goddess costumer Sandy Powell’s period threads, production designer Helen Scott’s evocatively drab interiors and Jamie Ramsay’s elegantly layered cinematography in the 4:3 aspect ratio (also like “Ikiru”). This is a decidedly more controlled telling of the story than Kurosawa’s fierce poetry with the boxy frame, but Hermanus’ second time using it — “Moffie” was also 4:3 — is further proof of how well he understands its compositional power in depicting people in and against their environments.

But to a large extent, the heart of this bespoke remake is with its crane-like lead: Nighy’s sentiment-free portrayal of introspection’s quiet chaos, like a statue becoming sentient, this well-starched individual making a first/last push to assemble the fragments of his epiphany into one meaningful gesture. His scenes with Wood are sweet, delicate heartbreakers of awkward camaraderie, culminating in a confessional pub scene of aching poignancy. Add to that his affecting description of playground children as symbols of life (one of Ishiguro’s best touches), not to mention one of those well-timed teardrops that shouldn’t work but, in this instance, completely does.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about the timing of a reimagined “Ikiru,” even one that’s also set in the past, is that in its tale of good public works, diligently facilitated in a privately resonant way, is a message perfectly attuned today — it’s an answer to our divisive era of virtue signaling, billionaire venality and the running joke that any do-nothing government is in a perpetual “infrastructure week.” With its aura of melancholic humanity and last-minute grace, “Living” reminds us that we’re all susceptible to a personal “infrastructure week,” but that it’s never too late to do something about it.

“Living” opens in Los Angeles and New York City Dec. 23 via Sony Pictures Classics.