Greetings again from the darkness. That uneasy feeling will likely never fade for me … the anxiety when one of the classic movies of yesteryear gets a remake from a contemporary filmmaker with their own vision. Sometimes the new version is a respected tribute to the original, while other times, the director believes they can improve on the classic. In this case, director Oliver Hermanus and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, 1993) clearly have love for Akira Kurosawa’s IKIRU (1952), one of the true classics of cinema. Moving the setting from Japan to 1953 England proves an easy transition thanks to a remarkable lead performance.
After the nostalgic, retro-styled opening credits, we learn about Williams (the always fascinating Bill Nighy), a manager in the Public Works Department. He’s a stoic man of discipline – the kind his staff can set their watches by. In fact, it the department and staff seem to be a perfect example of perfected bureaucratic logjam. Some of our early insight into Williams comes from Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), the new hire just learning the ropes. By the time Williams heads to his doctor’s appointment, we have a good feel for what a repressed creature of habit he is. This allows us to fully appreciate Nighy’s performance after Williams is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
As we have seen in many ‘cancer dramas’, upon receiving the bleak news, Williams decides to cut loose with a rare (maybe first ever) wild night on the town. He befriends Sutherland (Tom Burke, THE SOUVENIR: PART 1), a writer who acts as a guide through the pubs and becomes the first person to whom Williams discloses his state … a disclosure he chooses not to make to his own self-centered son. Next, Williams begins his first ever search for life … a way to actually live, rather than merely exist. This leads him to strike up an awkward friendship with Margaret Harris (Aimee Lee Wood, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, 2021), a former Public Works staffer who left the stifling work environment.
Ms. Harris is very forthcoming with Williams and even admits to giving him a most telling and uncomplimentary nickname. The gentleman is fascinated by Ms. Harris’ spirit and seems to come more alive just being around her. Of course, this raises eyebrows amongst the judgmental masses. Williams is inspired by her and his improved outlook, and this makes a difference at work where he approves a local project that had been previously ignored. A playground in the poorer section of town offers a chance for Williams to leave his mark, while also setting the future tone of the department.
It’s unusual for a film to kill off the main character so soon during the story, but this allows the third act to provide commentary on legacy and the aftermath of one’s death. Sometimes the little things we do matter, and they make up the legacy we leave. Nighy’s Oscar nominated performance is the epitome of nuance. His understated mannerisms display the opposite of living life on the edge. He also tamps down his usual cheekiness to capture the essence of Williams. The sweeping score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch perfectly captures the tone, and the film reminds us that the meaning of our life is whatever we make it.