Bureaucracy and Heroism, One

Bureaucracy and heroism are a strange juxtaposition, even an oxymoron. However, the new film Living, starring Bill Nighy with a screenplay written by Kazuo Ishiguro, exemplifies a certain kind of bureaucratic heroism. A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru, Living is set in Fifties post-war England, a society in which Ishiguro sees strong similarities with post-war Japan.

A Final Legacy

Mr. Williams, a mid-level public servant in the London planning office, receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer and must quickly decide how to spend his remaining six to nine months. Somewhat out of character, he samples hedonism, but quickly rejects it. He decides to make a difference with a bureaucratic decision he can influence and two young people in his office he can mentor.

The decision concerns an initiative by a group of women in a working-class area of London to convert an alley still strewn with detritus from the bombing into a neighbourhood park. The initiative has been ignored by Williams, his department, and the entire city government. An experienced bureaucrat, Williams knows how to pull the same levers that had previously consigned the project to oblivion.

Ishiguro’s Storytelling

Readers of Ishiguro’s novels know that he has a talent for holding the reader’s interest by slowly, even tantalizingly, releasing critical information. We see Williams at a doctor’s appointment but only hear the doctor beginning to reveal a diagnosis. Williams tells some characters a bit more of his diagnosis, but never reveals it to some of the people to whom he is closest, including his son and his long-time subordinates. Mr. Williams’ death comes a little past the mid-point of the film, and we learn more about Williams from what the characters say to one another about him, and about how he has influenced their behaviour. Sometimes information is only partially released, and the viewer must infer the rest.

This parsimony with information is of a piece with traditional English parsimony in the display of emotion. The English actor Bill Nighy is superb at subtle communication of emotion, perfectly fitting Ishiguro’s approach to storytelling.

Cinematic Precursors

Living calls to mind two cinematic precursors, one for Nighy and the other for Ishiguro. In The Girl in the Café (2005), Mr. Montague, a senior civil servant and middle-aged bachelor, portrayed by Nighy, begins a relationship with a young woman he meets in a café. Unwisely, he invites her as an escort to a G-7 summit. She takes advantage of a social occasion to harangue the gathered world leaders of their responsibility to end world hunger. Implausibly, some additional progress is made; very plausibly, the personal price paid is the end of Montague’s career.

In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s breakthrough 1989 novel (and 1993 Merchant-Ivory film), the butler Mr. Stevens – a domestic civil servant of a sort – struggles to escape from his emotional self-censorship, but ultimately cannot. Anthony Hopkins, who portrays Stevens, has the same talent as Nighy for subtle portrayal of the emotions of a person struggled to suppress them.

Both these films leave you with a sense of sadness about the fate of the protagonist, poignant for Nighy’s Mr. Montague, and profound for Hopkins’ Mr. Stevens. Living ends on a note that is optimistic, life-affirming, and even inspirational. Williams looks deeply into his life and finds a way to improve the lives of children in one small part of London and to help two lively young people who are empathetic towards him move their lives forward.

Living is a well-crafted movie about small wins that is rewarding entertainment, both for people of an age that they identify with Williams and for people the age of those Williams mentors. Don’t wait for it to go to streaming. If you can, see it during its initial run in the cinemas.

One response to “Bureaucracy and Heroism, One”

  1. Tom Steenburg Avatar
    Tom Steenburg

    Absolutely spot on about Nighy and his subtlety. He was also superb opposite Judi Dench in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

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