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The Aged Civil Servant

Ross Ferguson/Number 9 Films

Living (2022)

The omnivorous remake culture in which we swim is fueled by many things, but you assume motivations for recycling "Ikiru" did not include mass public recognition of the original property, however high the regard for Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film in cineaste circles. That said, themes of elderly regret and the nature of a life worth living are universally poignant, as the funding proposal to Film4 and its production partners no doubt mentioned. In this case the deciding factor was quite probably the involvement of screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, whose story "The Remains of the Day" was about the drastic overhaul of Great Britain underway in the 1950s and the benefits of finding something to like about the present; exactly the setting and central concern that Mr. Ishiguro has brought into "Living."

Bill Nighy is now 72, which seems the wrong number given his habitual screen air of a man kept virile by a supply of high quality Grand Cru, so the shrewdness of his casting in "Living" is apparent as soon as senior civil servant Mr. Williams opens his mouth and speaks in the pained raspy whisper of a man whose internal parts are wearing out. Not for nothing does it transpire that Williams's nickname in the office is "Mr. Zombie." Williams seems at least 72 – British retirement age in the film's era was 65, but this particular civil servant looks likely to die in harness. Which is what happens: Williams receives a terminal diagnosis, and after experimenting with relative hedonism in the company of Sutherland (Tom Burke) and forming an unprecedented friendship with younger co-worker Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), he devotes himself to seeing a former bomb site turned into a children's playground. The planning proposal languishes in the infinite labyrinth of administrative red tape that British society is built on, but Williams makes it his mission to see it through.

"Living" is as relentlessly manipulative as its source material was, although it's hard to feel that it shouldn't have been made. The suggestion that somewhere in the British government lurks the potential for altruistic public service might provoke a hollow laugh from anyone currently paying income tax to that organization, but the new film (like the old one) puts the spiritual life at the heart of the material one with such conviction that it makes a convincing aspirational goal. Director Oliver Hermanus holds back the potential avalanche of sentiment with some visible effort, matching the starched restraint of the characters – a tide of bowler-hatted 1950s gents rolling towards London's old County Hall is the kind of visual that Monty Python could confidently spoof before too long – until the film eventually unleashes the catharsis of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" on the soundtrack, the music that emerges from the ground whenever you turn over a spade of English soil. Setting the film in 1953 alludes to the period of Kurosawa's film, but more to the point means that Mr. Williams checks out just as Queen Elizabeth II checks in. His world dropped the bombs and hers can use the playgrounds and there are worse ways to frame the upward course of history than that.


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