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Sleekly sentimental, 'Living' plays like an 'Afterschool Special' for grownups

Living, is a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film Ikiru, which means "to live" in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he's spent the last 30 years of his life.

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Other segments from the episode on January 3, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 3, 2023: Interview with Lizzie Gottlieb, Robert Gottlieb; Review of film 'Living.'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Living," which is now in theaters, is an English adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's film "Ikiru." It tells the story of a London bureaucrat who realizes that he needs to escape the rut he's been living in. He's played by Bill Nighy, whose performance was voted best lead performance by the LA Film Critics Association. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says he found the film skillful but also frustrating.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When historians look back on the COVID years, they'll be struck by how those many months of anxiety and social distancing led countless people to ask themselves big existential questions. Have I been doing the work I really want to do? Have I been living the way I really want to live? Or have I simply been coasting as my life passes by? These questions lie at the heart of Oliver Hermanus' "Living," a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film "Ikiru," which means to live in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he spent the last 30 years of his life.

Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a widower in charge of a local government department that approves public projects like parks for children, a Kafkaesque system in which nothing ever gets done. Trapped in bowler-hatted besuited monotony, the all-but-silent Mr. Williams is sleepwalking through life until one day his doctor gives him a death sentence. This rouses him from his lethargy and sends him off on a quest for meaning.

At a seaside resort, he meets a local novelist - that's Tom Burke of "C.B. Strike" fame - who takes him out carousing. But that's not what he needs. Then he grows obsessed with his only female employee, played by chipper Aimee Lou Wood, whose appeal is not her sexuality, but an effortless, upbeat vitality that's a counterpoint to his quietness. Here, over tea, she begins telling him that she has nicknames for everyone at the office.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

AIMEE LOU WOOD: (As Margaret Harris) Mr. Williams, if you promise, and I mean really promise, to not get angry, I'll tell you my secret nickname for you.

BILL NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) I promise.

WOOD: (As Margaret Harris) You really mustn't get cross. It's not just you. I have them for everyone. Only I know about them and my cousin Rosemary who I share rooms with.

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) I see.

WOOD: (As Margaret Harris) For instance, Mr. Rusbridger - I call him the hover man because he just hovers his pen over the page with the intention of doing work, but never actually doing work. And Mr. Hart - well, I call him the confused chimney because he's constantly smoking and constantly bewildered. Have you seen his eyebrows? (Impersonating Mr. Hart) Mr. Rusbridger, on my desk. Doesn't have a clue.

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) That's very good.

WOOD: (As Margaret Harris) All right, this time, I'll say the name. You have to guess who it is. It's on the fourth floor - Julius Caesar.

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) Julius Caesar - well, I suppose that would be Mr. Brown in accounts.

WOOD: (As Margaret Harris) Correct.

POWERS: Her name for Mr. Williams is Mr. Zombie, a moniker whose justice he doesn't deny. Her embrace of life inspires him to redeem his remaining days by doing good works. Everybody in the theater can predict whether or not he'll succeed. We've seen this story before. Indeed, "Ikiru" set the template. Yet his fate is touching anyway.

Now, there's a lot of skill on display in "Living," from Mr. Williams' suits to the nifty decor to the font in the credits. Fifties London is lovingly recreated in a way that had my screening companions cooing with delight. And who doesn't love Bill Nighy? Although he's better, I think, when he's more fun. His quiet, deeply internal performance captures a man who, with grace and bone-dry humor, peels off his mummy's bandages and comes alive.

So given all this, why do I find the film disappointing? It's not simply that it's a remake, and I'm a stickler for originality. Heck, "Ikiru" itself was inspired by Tolstoy's great 1886 novella, "The Death Of Ivan Ilyich." But when Kurosawa made his film, he didn't tell exactly the same story as Tolstoy and didn't simply move it from 1880s St. Petersburg to 1880s Tokyo. He reconceived the plot and set the action at the time he was living - a '50s Tokyo still ravaged by World War II. Though it tells a universal story about finding meaning in the face of death, Kurosawa's film crackles with the urgency of its historical moment, which in Japan's era of rebuilding, had a desperate need to believe that even the most ordinary person, a paper pusher, had the capacity for heroism and nobility.

Alas, Ishiguro's adaptation lacks the same inventiveness and urgency. It seems more like a deftly edited transposition than the artistic rethinking I expected from a Nobel Prize-winner whose fiction I admire. Rather than retool things for the present, the film sinks into Britain's boundless obsession with its past. Dwelling on period details, "Living" feels distant from the textures of today's fast-paced, Brexit-battered multicultural London, where a 2022 Mr. Williams might well be of East Asian or Caribbean descent. The messiness of life never busts in. As with too many British dramas, the action takes place in a safely stylized England, a museum diorama in which even life and death can't really touch us.

Low-key and muted, Hermanus' direction doesn't catch the desperation and sadness that gave Kurosawa's original film its emotional power, especially in its transcendent finale set in the snow, one of the most beautiful and moving climaxes in movie history. Rather than shake us to our core like "Ikiru," "Living" teaches us a life lesson we can all agree on. It's like an afterschool special for grownups - a very good one, mind you, but still.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new film "Living" starring Bill Nighy. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, journalist Shahan Mufti describes one of the most dramatic and least remembered hostage crises in American history. In 1977, gunmen led by a charismatic African American Muslim leader, stormed three locations in Washington, D.C., and took more than a hundred people hostage. Mufti's new book is called "American Caliph." I hope you'll join us.

Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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08:19

Sleekly sentimental, 'Living' plays like an 'Afterschool Special' for grownups

Living, is a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film Ikiru, which means "to live" in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he's spent the last 30 years of his life.

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