Living (film review) and my favorite Bill Nighy films

Living (2022) snuck out into theaters with not much fanfare. That’s not unusual in the post-Covid film world. Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Screenplay), it is one of lead actor Bill Nighy’s best roles.

Living refers to the fact that Mr. Williams (Nighy), a county bureaucrat in 1950s London, has only six or so months left on Earth. He’s widowed, his kids have a very distinct relationship with him (even though they live in his house), and no close friends. His employees look at him as a type of schoolmaster, distant and formal.

When the doctor confirms the diagnosis, Mr. Williams turns to a stranger to show him how to make meaning with what’s left of his life. The story is an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s film Ikiru, which itself was an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”

The film Living is based on.

It’s a slight little film, but it shines. Mr. Williams is a cog in the bureaucracy, stripped of imagination, ground into obedience, focused on process and order into of creation, and starved of meaning. Mr. Williams as a child wishes to simply become a gentleman, someone would fit into society and find his place in the order. He realized almost too late that he had become what he hoped, with barely any time to make up for that grand misstep. The cultural world of Britain in that time period was about conformity and a prescribed moral suit of gray pinstripes and a bowler hat.

Mr. Zombie is the name given to him by a young lady, Miss Harris, who left the county for another job. He takes a fancy to her spirit and directness. She is most responsible for melting the boredom around his soul. Williams is so chained to his stiff-upper lip conformity and widower grief that he can’t share honest feelings with anyone, including his son. He does not confess his illness, only strangers know.

Williams takes an unannounced absence from work to deal with his terminal illness. When he returns to work, he sports a new fedora rather than his lost bowler, and a changed attitude. The first thing he does is to champion the request for a children’s park, a pocket park that has been ignored and kicked around the county bureaucracy.

Nighy’s soft, understated speaking style is perfect for this quiet, introspective film. He looks the distinguished, proper gentleman who never steps out of line. I can understand why he was nominated for various awards for this role.

My favorite Bill Nighy films:

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) The henpecked husband who can’t seem to please his wife, until he lets her go, and realizes how well he fits with another retiree.

Pirate Radio (2009) Nighy is Quentin, who runs the offshore pirate radio station. A great comedic role for him.

Valkyrie (2008) Nighy portrays General Friedrich Olbricht, a member of the resistance in Nazi Germany. A narrowing role for Nighy to play a Nazi.

Hot Fuzz (2007) A small, but very funny role as a high ranking, but clueless police official. Few scenes, but very funny.

The Girl in the Cafe (2005) Nighy is an older man who falls in love with a much younger girl. She causes career issues for him, but he believes she’s right.

The Constant Gardner (2005) Nighy plays a corrupt British diplomat trying to keep secrets at the cost of lives. One of the few Nighy villainous roles that I like.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) The first recognition of Nighy in a film. Shaun’s stepfather who turns into a zombie. Goofy and offbeat role and film.

Love Actually (2003) Perhaps Nighy’s most famous role, the aging rockstar with a deadpan delivery.

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