The man in the pin-striped suit
Older man learns he’s dying, meets much younger woman, determines to change his life. Defying that prosaic storyline are Bill Nighy as the older man, Aimee Lou Wood as the young woman, and the tone and creative screenplay of “Living.”
Nighy is “Mr. Williams” and Wood is “Miss Harris,” who calls him “Mr. Zombie,” and with good reason. As she reluctantly informs him, Mr. Zombie is “dead but alive,” “a walking mummy.” He presides over a coterie of 5 colleagues who push paper, not projects, in the Dickensian post-World War II public works department of London County Hall. The piles of paper and folders in the sky-high inboxes of these 5 men and 1 woman (Miss Harris), and the run-around they give 3 mothers trying to turn an alienated, bombed-out space into a playground, are evocative of the Chancery Courts of that Victorian Era author’s “Bleak House.”
Nighy, tall and rigid, with a gray, gaunt and heavily lined face, in his uniform of pin-striped suit and bowler hat, portrays “Mr. Williams” with heartbreaking reserve and an intimation of deep-rooted unhappiness. He seems to have adopted this limited life more by inertia and a fascination with manners than by choice, much like the dysfunctional office over which he presides. As he considers his past and future, Williams begins a cautious journey to self-knowledge. Unlike Colm, the crusty protagonist of Martin McDonagh’s recent “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Williams’s crisis is triggered not by old age, but by the prospect of his dying, and it’s not about wanting some form of life-after-death, but a matter of reconsideration, of regret.
After learning of his fatal illness, Williams takes a break from his stultifying commuter regimen and heads for a seaside town, where, under the tutelage of a sympathetic stranger, he discovers the small joys of arcade games, exchanges the bowler for a fedora, and in a bar sings a Scottish ballad that brings tears to his eyes (and perhaps an Oscar nomination to Nighy) as it reminds him of his mother. The debauched, drunken, sexualized setting of this first effort to shed his old self doesn’t repel Williams so much as it is unsuitable to the gentleman he remains. He returns to London—but not his desk—and by chance encounters Miss Harris, who also has abandoned her paper-pushing post for waitressing. Her zeal for life entrances him (“but I’m just ordinary,” she insists, with some accuracy). Williams’s infatuation is something other than sexual; it’s a tiny kindling of a spirit he has buried for decades.
The film has an unanticipated arc, with a mid-way turn to flashbacks of Williams’s 4 male colleagues, on their otherwise monotonous, nearly silent daily commute to the City in their usual train compartment. Each of them (readily distinguishable, even in identical suits and hats, by nicknames Harris has given them) reveals a different side of the Williams they barely know, their stories focusing on that playground that once seemed an inconsequential irritation.
One of those 4 is the first person we see in the film, the newest member of the office cohort, appropriately named “Mr. Wakeling” (Alex Sharp). Through the eyes of the young, naïve, and not yet corrupted staffer and Miss Harris, one begins to see a living man—a thoughtful, caring person—under that fedora.
Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the novels and screenplays for “Remains of the Day” (film, 1993) and “Never Let Me Go” (film, 2010), featuring protagonists whose constrained lives have diminished their emotional inclinations, had long desired to remake the 1952 film, “Ikiru,” by Japan’s most famous director, Akira Kurosawa, and to transfer its setting to 1950s London. A product of the combination of these masterful authors, “Living” is a superb unfolding of words and characters.
Ishiguro boldly entrusted the remake of the Kurosawa classic to a South African director of limited experience, Oliver Hermanus, who imbues the film with a melancholy so restrained it transcends melodrama. While relying on the prodigious talent of Nighy, Ishiguro and Hermanus also get the most out of newer actors, Sharp and especially Wood, who is compelling in spite of, or possibly because of, her rosy face, rounded figure, prominent teeth, and bright red lips.
The result is of a piece with 1950s tracts on the deadness of office life, including “The Organization Man” (book, 1956) and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (film, Gregory Peck, 1955). At the same time, the film resonates with the dissatisfactions of many contemporary workers, especially post-Covid: those who quit or engage in “quiet quitting,” the defiant Amazon warehouse workers, Starbucks’ unionizers and, as we write this, the flight of Twitter employees from Elon Musk’s dictatorial, live-to-work management.
“Living” is a small gem of a film, with compelling (and yet contained) performances, capped by Nighy’s poignant portrayal of a life badly, and barely, lived, and of a man’s belated recognition that there is another way to be in the world.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp
Countries: United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden
Runtime: 102 minutes
Other Awards: 2 wins and 10 nominations to date
Availability: Opening December 23, 2022, in theaters in the US; premiered in January at Sundance; released November 4 in the United Kingdom; no streaming availability at this time; for future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.
Lead image: Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) in his uniform of pin-striped suit and bowler hat.