It’s hard to imagine a more perfect choice to adapt Kurosawa’s iconic Ikiru (1952) than Kazuo Ishiguro. Born in Japan but raised in the UK since the age of 5, the Nobel Laureate bridges both cultures, swapping the Tokyo setting for London, but changing little else.

The original is a perfect fable, so there’s logic in tinkering as little as possible, but it’s still a shame to not be more ambitious. The commitment to period detail even goes as far as the cinematography, with Jamie Ramsay offering a creative interpretation of period Technicolour with beautiful results. If the British stiff upper lip, softened by post-war melancholy has a look, then it is this. Lowly saturated colours and crushed blacks, as if the optimism of a new era free from conflict hasn’t quite managed to break free from years of misery.

Director Oliver Hermanus may be South African, but he has a superb understanding of the archetypal British character. Early scenes are frighteningly deadpan, with glances and grunts instead of actual words. And once civil servant Williams (Bill Nighy) learns of his terminal illness, Living becomes a masterpiece of heartbreak and repression.

The film lives or dies by its lead performance, and Bill Nighy is on supreme form, burying his natural charisma behind a socially contracted politeness and the weight of decades of bureaucracy. He reveals his humanity scene by scene, slowly evolving from a mirthless zombie into a spirited, energised fighter who finally has a reason to live, just when it’s too late.

Aimee Lou Wood is also superb as the secretary who helps him discover his lust for life, and if the film slides a little too earnestly into its mawkish conclusion, it’s just about earned. After all, what could be more miraculous than a group of repressed British bureaucrats discussing their emotions? The real success is that you’ll leave the cinema wanting to make the most of every second you have left.



CAST: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Tom Burke, Alex Sharp, Adrian Rawlins

DIRECTOR: Oliver Hermanus

WRITER: Kazuo Ishiguro, Akira Kurosawa (original screenplay)

SYNOPSIS: In London, 1952, a bureaucrat faces a terminal illness and finally decides to start truly living.