Give Bill Nighy an Oscar for Best Actor, You Cowards! – Rolling stones
From the moment the opening credits begin to roll over an overhead view of London’s Piccadilly Square, in all its mid-20th century glory, Oliver Hermanus’ Live takes you into a bygone era in Britain. Or, to be more specific, a lost heyday of British cinema, when names like Powell and Pressburger were synonymous with life and excitement, Ealing comedies sold a vision of post-war England that valued both stiff upper lips and smiles, and films like f .eg Short meeting pitted emotional repression against raging passion. The vintage typeface, the slightly washed-out hue of the colour, the old-school score by the London Modern Orchestra – there are few moments when you wonder if this film has recently been discovered and is gathering dust in a vault, a lost masterpiece that even goes before its source material.
It would be Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama about a bureaucrat dying of cancer who hopes to leave one last act of kindness before shuffling off this mortal coil. Long considered an outlier in the director’s career (it was made after his breakthrough Rashomon but before the samurai epics that cemented his reputation in the West and are as silent as those films are kinetic), it is now recognized as a classic. Yet the film is so tied to aspects of Japanese mercenary culture from the era that the idea of remaking it and relocating it seems counterintuitive. How do you make it work? And how do you escape the shadow of Takashi Shimura’s performance as the terminally ill commoner who seizes one last chance to experience the joys and sorrows of an actual life lived?
We’ll start with the former: You graft this story into an equally specific social landscape, one with its own suffocating set of rules about ways to act, what things to leave unsaid, what feelings to dampen or stifle in the name of civility. It turns out that Britain in the early 50s fits the bill perfectly – who would have guessed, apart from Brits who lived through that period, and pretty much everyone else? (Like some philosophers who called that country home once said: “Hangs on in quiet desperation / is the English way.”) The story transplants well enough to remain more or less the same, with a buttoned-up civil servant named Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) find out that he has about six months left to live. He indulges in a night of full-on partying with a vacationer roue (Tom Burke) and spends afternoons in the company of a younger woman, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), who used to work with him. Williams succeeds in getting a lengthy proposal for a playground, which had been plagued by bureaucracy, passed. Then our man exits, stage left.
However, the trick that Hermanus and his top crew pull is not just to set Live in an earlier United Kingdom, but makes you feel like you’re seeing something there actually played in a British theater in 1952. The ye olde Golden Age credit sequence is just the tip of the retro iceberg, and it’s possible to just bask in the time machine stylings of it all. The South African director loves images and geometric patterns from God, making several compositions – in particular an image of commuters walking across a railway bridge as train tracks cut across the screen diagonally below them – worthy of being hung on museum walls. Sandy Powell’s costumes and Helen Scott’s production design don’t conjure up a bygone age so much as revive it. Jamie Ramsay’s film is somehow both lush and sharp; bits of color contrast against masses of charcoal gray and pin-striped black, while shadows can either enhance space or add to the drabness of a workplace. It’s strange to call a script “elegant”, but it’s the first word that comes to mind in terms of author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro’s contribution — the Nobel Prize-winning novelist has an impeccable ear for the speech patterns in the films of the period and the way words can illuminate or obscure.
All this would make this drama a perfect example of a carefully reconstructed movie-movie, if that was all it offered. These elements also serve to aid and abet a performance, which is what really does Live vital and inevitable. Bill Nighy has been a steadily working actor since the late 1980s and possesses the kind of presence to adapt to a prestigious Brit TV series and a Pirates of the Caribbean entrance. You need stolid or silly, UK division you call Nighy. Even the haters Love actually admit that he is the most lively, fun-anarchic part of it.
So much of his withdrawn, closed Mr. Williams is initially reflected through the impressions of others: Wakeling (Alex Sharp), the young office novice who looks at the older man with awe; their department’s other bowler-hatted colleagues; Williams’ son (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law (Patsy Ferran), eager to get the family house; Margaret, who regards him with both affection and concern; and Burke’s boho gadfly, who takes Williams’ medication from his hands, then takes him out for a night on the town. He can be impressive or aloof, untouchable or pathetic, keen or fatherly – it depends on who he is talking to at any given moment.
Yet it’s Nighy who inevitably begins to guide us gently through Williams’ inner life of quiet desperation, forever on the verge of being completely self-effacing, and that’s when you realize just how great an actor he really is. At one point, a quick litany of flashbacks involving youth, compromise and loss play out nothing more than the actor’s reactions; every little shift in his expression moves you along his memories. He lets you see how hard it is for this person to open up and how much or how little the curtain is pulled back in each scene. Nighy can let Williams vent his deteriorating condition out of socially acceptable politeness (“such a dullness” is his preferred description for the diagnosis), or he can gently rage against the dying of the light without giving the game away. He can make a small smile on your face feel like a ray of sunshine, or he can turn a drunken rendition of a Scottish folk song into something heartbreaking. Keep tissues handy for that sequence.
And it is the star himself that lifts even more than the decor and the change of cultural scenes Live out of replay territory and into something far more profound. It becomes yet another story of a man who at long last learns to embrace the world, yet one that is utterly substantial and crushing and yes, even life-affirming in itself. The performance elevates it beyond that. At the point when the film pays tribute by replicating IkiruNighy’s most famous shot of an old man on a swing, fully alive for the first time, makes you feel the nod is deserved. It is a testament to the power of a “little” man doing a “little” thing that will benefit those he leaves behind. And, even more striking, for the talent of a gigantic actor, to turn something called less into something so much more.