Movie Review: Bill Nighy’s a bureaucrat whose terminal illness is his cue to start “Living”

A sublime, subdued performance by Bill Nighy is reason enough to bask in the glory that is “Living,” a lovely period piece about a civil servant who questions what purpose his life has served when he’s told he has six months to live.

Yes, that plot is a tad familiar. But it wasn’t when Akira Kurosawa filmed “Ikiru” back in 1952, which is the basis for this Kazuo Ishiguro (“Remains of the Day”) screenplay. Seeing Nighy and the legions of other ever-so-reserved paper-shufflers in their bowler hats, queuing up for the day’s train commute into postwar London, you’d think it was an English story all along. Civil service functionaries are a universal “type.” Only the hats change.

A new man (Alex Sharp) has joined the day’s train ride to County Hall. There’s a pecking order which second-in-command Middleton (Adrian Rawlins) imparts to young Wakeling. Hart and Rusbridger (Oliver Chris and Hubert Burton) know their places. Their boss, Mr. Williamson (Nighy) knows his, too. He always rides in a separate car.

It’s 1949, and their planning office has a Dickensian quiet about it — the light patter of typewriters, a distant phone here and there with the shuffling of papers and scribbling of pens the true background noise of the place.

It is Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood of Netflix’s “Sex Education” series) who tips the new gent how to fit in. Those stacks of folders and files on everybody’s desk? They’re “skyscrapers,” proof that they’re “working.”

“First rule? Keep the skyscrapers high.”

But for all this British efficiency, the whole idea seems to be to take in more paper, but kick everything from one office to the next so that nothing ever is truly decided or finished. Nothing gets done, or at least, gets done in anything like a timely fashion. Wakeling figures that out when his first day initiation involves escorting a group of women who have petitioned for a bombed-out building to be turned into a playground for their children.

Quiet, calm Mr. Williamson takes it all in stride, and always suggests that they “leave it here,” where it can be added to the mountain of other papers. “What harm could it do?”

But the widowed Mr. Williamson, who lives with his impatient son and daughter-in-law (Barry Fishwick and Patsy Ferran) is about to get some bad news. It’s his doctor. The results were “conclusive.”

“It’s never easy, this,” the physician obfuscates. “Quite” is all the patient can say in reply.

Williamson proceeds to “skive off” from work and struggle with this new state of affairs. He doesn’t weep. He’s just morose.

He empties out a bank account and takes off for a day down in the tourist town of Brighton, where he confides in a local playwright and tippler (Tom Burke).

Six months? That’s “enough time to get your affairs in order,” Sullivan opines, and “live a little, if you choose to.”

But as his new friend leads him through the beach town’s pleasures and amusements, Williamson figures out what we figure out. That he’s not used to this, or good at it.

Williamson’s just Scottish enough to know the folk song “The Rowan Tree,” and attempt to sing it in a waterfront pub, not exactly a pub tune.

“I fancy it just crept up on me, one day preceding the next” is how he figures the rigor mortis that is his life happened. Probably too late to do anything about it now.

The production design is immaculate. It’d have to be, considering the beautiful (Technicolor, I think) stock footage of 1940s London street scenes that opens the film. Austere and reserved classic music — solo piano or chamber pieces — sets the aural tone.

South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”) takes a light hand on the tiller here, letting Nighy keep his character reserved, repressed, sentimental — there’s a flashback or two — and resigned.

And if there’s one overriding, aching thing anyone takes from this and the original Japanese film it is based on, which I haven’t seen in decades, it’s the loneliness that comes at the end. Williamson wonders what he’s done with his life and how to bring himself to tell his son he’s dying.

Perhaps he’s afraid of his boy’s reaction.

He is seen out and about with Miss Harris, which raises eyebrows on the screen and in the audience. But the way Nighy carries himself here and carries off the character lets us know what others are missing, what he’s hoping to get out of her company.

If you know “Ikiru,” you remember how all this plays out. And Ishiguro’s script hits not just the same notes as Kurosawa’s original screenplay, but the right ones.

It’d be wrong to see what’s happening here as hopeful, upbeat or life affirming, despite the twinkle Nighy can’t help but bring to any role.

But the warning is poignant as ever, just as surely as Dickens himself laid it out in “A Christmas Carol.” It’s never too early to take stock, and never too late to do something that will help others or at least brighten their day or lessen their burden. While you’re still “Living,” there’s always time.

Rating:  PG-13 for some suggestive material and smoking.

Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Adrian Rawlins, Patsy Ferran, Barney Fishwick and Tom Burke.

Credits: Directed by Oliver Hermanus, scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro, based on the film “Ikiru, scripted and directed by Akira Kurosawa. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:43

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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