Living film poster | Credit: Lionsgate Films UK

“I felt like I must have been very, very good in a previous life, because what did I do to deserve this,” said actor Bill Nighy of the (deservedly) critically acclaimed role that writer Kazuo Ishiguro wrote especially for him in the film Living

Based on the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa (which was inspired by the 1886 Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy), Living more than lives up to its impressive pedigree and the thematic throughline, which is “the idea that you can have a significant and important life without world domination,” as Nighy explained in a post-screening Q&A at Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Cinema Society. Both Nighy’s performance and the film itself — directed by Oliver Hermanus, who also appeared at the SBIFF event — are subtle and heartwarming in this story of buttoned-up businessman who, when facing a fatal illness, finally lets down his hair and begins to really transform himself by learning to enjoy life. 

Despite the fact that Nigy’s final move in his career running the Public Works Department is to help some mothers get through the bureaucracy to create a neighborhood playground, there is not a drop of cheap sentimentality in this story. It could have been incredibly sappy in less skilled hands. Instead, it’s an exquisitely sad, extremely relatable story — and an incredible showcase for Nighy’s skill as an actor. 

“It’s actually kind of fun to play somebody who’s that uptight,” said Nighy, who is probably best known for playing pop star Billy Mack in the Christmas classic Love Actually. “I have played a few decent people and I kind of dig it.”

While Living is an excellent showcase for Nighy, the supporting cast is also terrific. A particular standout is Aimee Lou Wood as the one female and spot of color in the dull office full of public servants. You may recognize her from the Netflix series Sex Education (a fabulous show in its own right), where she also plays a character named Aimee. Alex Sharp also does a fine job as a new young employee who serves the audience’s emotional lens to what is going on at the office and a reminder that Nighy’s character was also once a young man with his whole life ahead of him.

An understated and beautiful film, Living tells a story that stuck with me long after the lights at the theater dimmed.

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