In a year of huge performances, such as Cate Blanchett in “Tár” and Brendan Fraser in “The Whale,” it’s soothing and occasionally a tad unnerving to watch Bill Nighy be so Zen calm in the affirming movie “Living.”
Nighy speaks scarcely louder than a whisper as Mr. Williams, a shaken man concealing a fatal illness from his son and employees. The actor never erupts in anger, howls in anguish or squeals in euphoria. He’s eerily quiet. Like Williams, Nighy is keeping a secret from us, too, and we are in turn fascinated by his every blink and sigh.
Running time: 102 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some suggestive material and smoking). In select theaters Friday.
The 73-year-old British actor, who’s had an extraordinary four-decade career on stage and screen, has a strong shot for a well-deserved first Oscar nomination.
“Living,” a fantastic film all around, is a shrewd adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 movie “Ikiru” (or “To Live”) and is appropriately transplanted to post-war 1952 London.
Williams is a blasé bureaucrat with the now-defunct London County Council, where he is in charge of the public works department. Feared and respected by his employees, such as the bright-eyed Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp), he does little except ignore requests from concerned citizens, or shoves them off to other supervisors who shove them right back into his neglected filing cabinet. His office is a cycle of resigned inaction — kinda like life.
One day, the always-responsible gent mysteriously doesn’t come into work, and instead takes the train to seaside Brighton, where he gets drunk at the pub with an eccentric author. He also begins meeting up with a pretty assistant Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood, sublime) — not romantically — for lunches and movies. Those closest to the widower, like his uncaring, money-hungry son, are baffled by his behavior.
Williams confuses them even more when he becomes obsessed with three mothers’ requests to build a playground on a derelict plot of land in their neighborhood to serve underprivileged kids. He is determined to do whatever it takes to see the project to completion.
In those scenes, Nighy — still with a stiff upper lip — breaks your heart. Awakened Williams is not unlike Scrooge on Christmas morning, only he’s truer to life and our own buttoned-up repression than a Victorian bloke in a bathrobe ordering a kid to buy a goose.
Director Oliver Hermanus has as much restraint as his star (and for a modestly sized movie, impressively manages a visually believable 1950s Britain), and the viewer never feels emotionally manipulated.
When our eyes begin to well up with tears toward the soulful ending, we’re as surprised and self-reflective as the characters are.