Living review: Understated, perfectly pitched drama about terminal illness

Cinema: Bill Nighy puts in a career-best turn as a civil servant with six months to live

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Director: Oliver Hermanus
Cert: PG
Genre: Drama
Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke
Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

Classic weepies tend toward large gestures and tearful denouements. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s salaryman melodrama Ikiru acts as a gentle corrective to the genre’s operatic tendencies. Living, which is composed entirely of delicate movements and earnest pleasantries, maintains a quietude and stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy.

Bill Nighy puts in a career-best turn as a stern, bowler-hatted British civil servant who, in 1953, is diagnosed with a terminal illness. As with Kurosawa’s film, South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus chronicles his protagonist’s answer to the question: “What would you do if you had six months left to live?”

Mr Williams (Nighy) is a widower and source of some dread for his underlings at the Office of Public Works, including new employee Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp).

Mr Williams’s response to his illness is erratic and entirely out of character. Skiving off work, he heads to the seaside where a roguish stranger (Tom Burke) advises him to “live a little”.


“I don’t know how,” comes the honest response.

He does try.

He staggers through a boozy night out, during which he performs an affecting rendition of the Scottish air, Oh Rowan Tree. Much to the consternation of his busybody neighbour, he takes high tea with Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), the prettiest and most empathetic presence at the postwar offices of London County Hall. He studiously avoids telling his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) about his diagnosis.

It requires a group of campaigning women and some paperwork that has, previously, been pushed around to no great effect for Mr Williams to find a purpose. Even this final act of heroism is an appropriately small, but meaningful gesture.

This is a long way from the director’s hard-hitting depiction of homosexuality under apartheid-era conscription, but no less impactful. The cast is wonderful. And every detail – from Sandy Powell’s exquisite period costumes to Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s music – is just perfect. A final exchange with a passing policeman would make a stone cry.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic