Last Thursday evening found me in the New Picture House, St Andrews, familiar to me since I was a little girl. In fact, as though stepping back in time, nothing has really changed and I suspect the nostalgic surrounds only served to enhance the charm of a film set in 1953; one which appears so quintessentially British. In truth, the screenplay – courtesy of Kazuo Ishiguro – was adapted from the 1953 Japanese film, Ikuru – directed by Akira Kuwosawa – whose inspiration can, actually, be traced back to 1886 and a Russian novella penned by Leo Tolstoy! Not an inkling.
So, as ever, while impelled to sing the praises of this wonderful film, I am humbled by the need to do it justice. Quite simply, it represents one hour, forty-two minutes I could neither have spent more wisely, nor, indeed, more enjoyably. Captivated from the start, I loved every second! In fact, I would question any view to the contrary. Then, again, in this bleak, depraved world in which we find ourselves today, I know nothing of what motivates most to subscribe to the commercial blockbuster films littered with gratuitous sex and violence, special effects proving more important than either acting or story. Escapism or just mind-numbing? Perhaps, a little like taking one’s children to the zoo – learn nothing but takes care of a couple of hours and the snacks are good!
Then, there is Living, a film whose very simplicity enables it to soar. Set in a post-war London, the era is captured so perfectly, the cinematography, magical, as one is transported back to the days of gentlemen and gentility; bowler hats, manners, service and reserve. Reserve. Mr Williams (Bill Nighy), the protagonist, embodies the very word. Austere, unapproachable, he is nothing if not refined, but, resigned to a life of pointless tedium, he is also shy and desperately lonely, unable to interact. Nearing retirement, his entire life has been spent as a civil servant in the Town Planning Department, a prisoner to his desk and a tower of pending files- day-in, day-out – world without end, Amen. Call that living?
Of course, this is a film with a message, a warning as it were, but the sensitivity with which it is delivered has one captivated from the onset. Yes, this poor, lonely old man who is all but dead from the neck down – already – having, seemingly, wasted his life, is delivered a death sentence but that is the bare bones of it. The magic of the film lies in its narrative structure and delivery, both of which are exquisite. Thus, it opens as a young Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp) joins his new colleagues on the train journey into London for his first day in Town Planning, County Hall. Nervous, enthusiastic, the young colt is the very antithesis of Mr Williams who, too, joins the train but not his colleagues. It seems there is nothing endearing about this character of few words who spends his days at a desk merely going through the motions, devoid of any desire to make a difference. So it is that he is responsible for Mr Wakeling spending much of his first day deflecting three persistent mothers in their long-held bid to have their petition for a local playground addressed. Inevitably, Mr Williams returns the file to the pending tray … A metaphor for life?
The terminal diagnosis delivered by his doctor, initially, has little impact on a detached audience; that is, until one learns a little more about the man behind the mask. A widower, his son and daughter-in-law continue to live with him but there is no love lost and, as a shell-shocked Mr Williams returns home having been delivered of his sword of Damocles, he is mistakenly privy to a conversation anticipating their future inheritance. Now, as this lonely, scared man contemplates imminent death – and a life filled with regret – one cannot help but feel compassion. As the mask drops, so Mr Williams becomes a human being, deserving of pity.
Reflecting on a pointless life, a money-grabbing son and an impending, lonely death, this buttoned-up gentleman is completely derailed, so prompting the story of his path to redemption, as it were. Initially, ducking work for the first time in his life, he finds himself in Brighton befriending a wayward writer whom he accompanies on two days of drunken debauchery in a bid to escape his lot. Cue the pivotal scene in the film – for me – as an intoxicated Mr Williams, stripped of inhibition, delivers a heartbreakingly melancholic rendition of The Rowan Tree, an old Scottish folk song. The poignancy. The vulnerability. Not a dry eye in the house for an audience, now, completely won over.
Returning to London, the focus moves to his uncharacteristic but burgeoning friendship with the young, vibrant Miss Harris (Aimée Lou Wood), a former colleague who sought more from life. Proving a much-needed companion for this lonely gentleman with a desperate need to feel, in a way, she serves as a mirror, reflecting both the man he has become and that he could have been. As a catalyst, too, for, in the process of their friendship, Mr Williams emerges as a sentient human being; one who, now, determines to expedite the long-standing petition for the children’s playground as his one meaningful legacy to a life unlived …
He fulfils his wish. That’s the thing, this beautiful, moving film is a story which leaves no loose ends. Thus, Mr Wakeling is not on course to lead a pointless life, emulating his late boss. On the contrary, meeting Miss Harris, once again, at Mr Williams’ funeral, the two embark on a romance while, in County Hall, the pending tray is no more the burial ground for all files! A pointless life? Oh, no. For, ultimately, that lonely, buttoned-up old gentleman dies having learned what it is to live and, unwittingly, his wasted years serve as a lesson to all. Ironically, the children’s playground he has dismissed for so long becomes his swan song; a fitting metaphor for this tale with a moral. Too late, he allowed himself to feel and to experience the joy in helping others. He made a friend. He watched the children play … and he understood. Living ends as one learns that Mr Williams spent his dying hours on one of the swings, lost in song: The Rowan Tree, of course. The sadness and the vulnerability in that beautiful song, clearly evoke memories of childhood; a time of innocence, of being loved and secure. The idyll. The circle of life.
Deserving of every accolade, Living pays homage to a cinema of the past. Gentle in genre, its strength lies in the skill of the actor and the power of a very human story which needs no special effects. A story of regret and great sadness, it is one which, also, tells of a vulnerability bowed beneath a propensity to judge. A film with an important message, Living, quite simply, speaks to the heart …
‘Glorious’ , The Hollywood News
‘Supremely graceful and affecting’, The Daily Telegraph
‘Pitch perfect … Absolutely gorgeous’, Rolling Stone
This is Trish, signing off.
‘The End ‘… Of course. I expected nothing less from this wonderful film.