Living review – Bill Nighy tackles life and death in exquisitely sad drama

The terrible conversation in the hospital consulting room – everyone’s final rite of passage – is the starting point for this deeply felt, beautifully acted movie from screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro and director Oliver Hermanus: a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1953 film Ikiru, or To Live.

A buttoned-up civil servant works joylessly in the town planning department; he is a lonely widower estranged from his grasping son and daughter-in-law. In the original, he was Mr Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura. Now he is Mr Williams, played by Bill Nighy.

Approaching retirement, his supposed reward for a life of pointless tedium, Mr Williams receives a stomach-cancer diagnosis with one year to live. And now he realises that he has been dead until this moment. After a mad and undignified attempt at boozy debauchery in the company of a louche writer (Tom Burke), Mr Williams realises there is one thing he might still achieve: forcing the city authorities to build the modest little children’s playground for which local mothers have been desperately petitioning and which he and his colleagues have been smugly preventing with their bureaucratic inertia.

Related: ‘I think about death 35 times a day’: Bill Nighy on sex, social media – and still being able to manage the stairs

Through sheer force of will, and astonishing his co-workers with his deeply unbecoming new urgency and baffling desire to help people, Mr Williams is determined to get the playground built before death closes in.

When Kurosawa’s film came out, it was set in the present day: a fiercely contemporary work about modern Japan and very different from his period dramas. Hermanus and Ishiguro have taken the decision to set it in 1953 as well, and so ingeniously recasting it as a historical piece: Nighy’s melancholy functionary works in the postwar London county council. He is ramrod straight in his pinstripe suit and bowler, an English gentleman through and through, whereas Shimura’s Mr Watanabe in Tokyo was doubled over with the pain of stomach cancer, in a parodic and deepening bow of Japanese respect.

Nighy is heartbreakingly shy and sensitive, his refined, almost birdlike profile presented to the camera in occasional stark and enigmatic closeups. This is a man who has had to suppress a natural wit and affectionate raillery all his life in the service of a dull job which meant nothing. His poignantly damaged rebirth has been caused by his diagnosis, and also his platonic yet nonetheless scandalous infatuation with a female junior: the innocently flirtatious Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), who entrances him, perhaps chiefly because she is quitting this dull office and trying something new. Meanwhile, a young man just starting there, played by Alex Sharp, intuits Mr Williams’s pain and sees how he himself might wind up the same way, out of unexamined loyalty to this older generation’s self-sacrificial woes.

Ishiguro has jettisoned the enigmatic, almost Capraesque voiceover from Kurosawa’s film, lost also the local gangsters that Watanabe faces down with his new, reckless courage of cancer. Maybe they seemed too Greeneian in 50s Britain. He has found a sweeter, more positive interpretation of the film’s final scenes, and a redemptive love affair among the younger generation, but kept the central structural coup in Ikiru, positioning the moment of the civil servant’s death so that we see all the besuited functionaries bickering and posturing after Mr Williams is gone, like Ivan Ilych’s colleagues in Tolstoy’s story or the people divvying up Scrooge’s bed linen in A Christmas Carol.

I was sorry that Ishiguro removed my favourite moment from Ikiru, when the civil servant, in a flash of existential panic, realises that he cannot think of any specific thing that has happened in his 30 years’ employment. It has all passed like a swift, featureless dream. But Ishiguro makes an inspired adjustment to the children’s playground itself – with Mr Williams noting that though some children are badly behaved and tantrum-prone when they are called away by their mothers, that is better than being one of those children who just hopelessly wait for playtime to end. In Living, the playground is not simply the widow’s-mite gift the civil servant has poignantly handed over to the community before his death. With its humble little swing set and roundabout, it is a symbol of everyone’s brief attempt at living.

This is a film which resonated in my mind, with its perennial question: isn’t it possible to achieve Mr Williams’s passionate dedication without the terminal diagnosis? After all, haven’t we all got that diagnosis? Or is the terrible paradox that you need to be told what you know already but were trying not to think about? A gentle, exquisitely sad film.

  • Living screened at the Sundance film festival and is released in the UK on 4 November.