Nighy of the ‘Living’ Dead

Midway through Living, government bureaucrat Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) takes a much younger colleague (the superb Aimee Lou Wood) to lunch. There she tells him that she has secret nicknames for everyone in the office. After making him promise not to get mad, she tells him his: Mr Zombie. “Sort of dead but not dead,” she explains.

Living, which earned Nighy a first Oscar nomination and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro his first screenwriting nod, starts with a familiar story line —— what would you do if you only had a few months to live? But it adds in a wrinkle from the outset. Mr. Williams doesn’t really know how to do anything but show up at his desk at London City Council’s public works department and push papers around to other departments. He’s a zombie.

It’s not just him. His underlings give a new hire a wary eye on his first day when the young clerk tries to engage in chitchat at the train station. The rule is: nod a greeting to your bosses, read your newspaper, and don’t make too much noise. There’s not a lot of room for enjoying “living.”

It’s not hard to see the influence of the source material, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952). Japan’s rigid hierarchies, Kafka-esque bureaucracy, and social mores graft easily onto postwar Britain. In fact, they’re recognizable even today in the West. Look around you and you’ll find plenty of men who are afraid to feel joy, have an intimate conversation, or display a hint of warmth to the people around them. We don’t want to be too much of a bother, so we’ll just keep it all inside.

Mr. Williams stops going to work, and after some false starts with booze, burlesque and boardwalk arcades, he finds the meaning he’s looking for. Just not where he’s been looking for it.

To tell too much more would be to give away the film’s secret sauce, so a quick word about Nighy: He’s good here. Of course, when is Nighy not good? He steals the show in Shaun of the Dead, makes Love Actually actually watchable, and sinks his teeth into Emma. Living has Nighy downplaying his comedic chops, mostly draining him of his sharp tongue and quick wit —— the type of performance Academy voters love to reward (see Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting). But Nighy, doing most of the work with his face and stilted salutations, earns his nomination with a climactic monologue that should cause even the most bottled-up of men to shed a tear.

Blog at