[Sundance Review] Post-war drama ‘LIVING’ grips your soul with its inspiring outlook

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

LIVING

Rated PG, 101 minutes.
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Cast: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Adrian Rawlins and Oliver Chris

Premiered on Jan. 21 at the Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the distribution rights. An official theatrical release is to be announced at a later time.

What a genuinely beguiling, confounding work Oliver Hermanus’ LIVING is. An English-language adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Japanese drama IKIRA, the story moves you like you wouldn’t expect, quietly shifting the ground from underneath you just as your heart expands. 

The film’s sartorial splendor and Bill Nighy’s triumphant performance at the center aren’t the only pieces that hang on the mind. Hermanus’ poignant, new vision has an incredible sense of introspection that thrives throughout. From the wide angles of people systematically moving up and down work staircases to a graceful snowfall accompanying a singing man’s happiness, every frame bursts with massive quantities of wise veracity about the human condition and the nature of which we should live our lives to the fullest.

LIVING invites us into the world of Mr. Williams (Nighy), a veteran civil servant and cog in the efficient clockwork of bureaucracy. Institutionalized with grief from the loss of his wife, he’s helping rebuild Britain following World War II by pushing paperwork around a government office. However, when Mr. Williams is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he faces mortality and the emptiness of his life as he lived it. As a result, Mr. Williams commits himself to a last passionate undertaking, vowing to transform his hollow administrative position into a proactive decision-making one. 

In many ways, Hermanus’ film shares a lot of cinematic DNA with last year’s PIG, starring Nicolas Cage as a chef turned reclusive truffle forager. We bounce around from place to place in that title, slowly learning more about its principal character. Through simple exchanges and very little action, we recognize what one person’s effort to do the right thing can inspire. Sometimes, these good gestures and acts of kindness bring about confusion or anger to those buried in guilt. Other times, it’s so touching and encouraging to those with open hearts. It all depends on what you do with it once you’ve observed it, and that’s what LIVING unearths.

As teased, the visual look of LIVING shows a similar depth of craftsmanship and thoughtfulness as the screenplay’s thematic well. The neutral color tones evoke the feeling of a black-and-white film, allowing the viewer to focus their attention on the movement and words. There are so many small character moments that hit with tremendous force. 

One sequence involving a night patrolman recalling a memory during the film’s conclusion is easily one of the most emotionally awakening things I’ve ever experienced. (Not too far off from the final dinner scene in PIG.) It completely stops you in your tracks and causes you to recognize the value a kind-hearted person can have. We get so caught up in the mechanics of life that it’s easy to forget why we’re alive. 

Clearly, a lot of dedication and virtuosity went into LIVING’s making. All of its combined elements – directing, writing and strong performances (Aimee Lou Wood nearly runs away with the film as Mr. Williams’ vivacious former co-worker, Margaret) – create something truly remarkable. This is the kind of high art that has something resonant to say about the basic concept of life and our ambitions. 

So, don’t let the tides of passion cool within you. Fill your life with LIVING.

Grade: A

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.