Bill Nighy is perhaps best-known to international audiences for his memorable performance as washed-up pop singer Billy Mack in Love Actually (2003), which won him a BAFTA for best supporting actor. He has also appeared in the “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” films and has won numerous acting awards in a long career that goes back to the 1970s.
This year, Bill Nighy has been nominated for Best Actor in his film “Living” and he will have to compete against newcomer Austin Bishop (“Elvis”), Irish actor Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inishirin”), Brendab Fraser (“The Whale”), and Paul Mescal in “Aftersun.”
“Living” is a loose adaptation/remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (aka “To Live“), a post-World War II drama about a Tokyo bureaucrat who goes on a similar journey after a terminal diagnosis of gastric cancer. Here, the Japanese setting has been traded for fifties London and Bill Nighy as Mr. Williams is the head of one of the many departments and bureaucracies that governments form. So often, the workers in such bureaucracies, become bogged down in it all. The screenplay’s term is “the sheer grind of it all.” The screenplay here was written by Kazuo Ishigero, based on the original Ikira Kurosawa work “Ikiru,” and is also nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nighy has been giving us convincing portraits of men whose chief desire (as with Mr. Williams) was to “be a gentleman” for years, but he also has run the gamut from zombies to alcoholic singers. It is perhaps ironic that Nighy in this role has been dubbed “Mr. Zombie” by the only female staffer, Aimee Lou Wood as Margaret, because he has, in fact, often been cast as a zombie.
In this particular film, however, it is the shock of his terminal diagnosis that reveals to the aging bureaucrat just how he has lost the joy of living. You just know that, in the time that he has left, he will attempt to regain his lust for life. As he says, “I remember what it was like to be alive like that.” As Miss Harris (Margaret, portrayed by Aimee Lou Wood) describes zombies, “they’re sort of dead, but not dead.” Margaret has quite a few nick names for her co-workers, including, “the hoverer” and “the confused chimney,” most of which have to do with the shuffling of papers by her co-workers, without any real progress.
Stacks of paperwork in each employees in/out basket show that they are busy, but what they seem to be busiest doing is giving regular Londoners the run-around—especially a group of neighborhood women who are dead set on getting a new playground. Alex Sharp as new employee Mr. Wakeling is ultimately someone who absorbs the life lesson that Williams, in his final weeks, attempts to share. He begins trying to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The boss who will succeed Mr. Williams, however, Mr Middleton (Adrian Rawlins) remains set in cement and, while talking a good game about progress, completely misses the point of the lesson that Mr. Williams’ last few months of life were meant to illuminate.
Another theme handled very delicately deals with the difficulty of a parent in communicating with the younger generation. When Williams learns of his approaching death, he wants to confide in his son, Michael (Barney Fishwick). He even practices what he will say in the hall mirror. Still, he cannot breach the gulf between them; Michael is just as tongue-tied and helpless at really communicating with his father, as Michael’s wife browbeats him about talking to his dad concerning his platonic friendship with Aimee Lou Wood as Margaret Harris. In the fifties setting, an old man befriending a much younger colleague who is female is simply not done. Everyone assumes the worst, and the son and daughter-in-law want to put a halt to gossip. The film very accurately reflects how times have changed since the fifties in society. Nighy, at 73, certainly has the necessary lengthy career to have seen these changes.
The film, directed by Oliver Hermanus, is elegantly old-fashioned. I mean that in all the best ways. The score, by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch swells with the full orchestration of olden days in this 1 hour and 42 minute movie. The cinematography by Jamie Ramsay is spot-on and all of the supporting players are excellent in their parts. It should be noted that the script is also Oscar nominated as Best Adapted Screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. There’s a definite feeling of a beginning, a middle, and an end and we even get a life lesson that we all should take to heart. To me, the other film that seems old-fashioned in this good way is “A Man Called Otto” with Tom Hanks. I don’t agree that there is a “merging” of films like “A Fistful of Dollars” from their Japanese source.
I found it interesting reading that Ishiguro had wanted to script a remake of the Akira Kurosawa film for years and was only able to pitch it to Bill Nighy (whom he always viewed as the actor to play the role of Mr. Williams) when he and his wife ended up sharing a cab with Nighy after a party. Nighy had never seen “Ikiru,” but once Nighy watched it, he enthusiastically signed on to the project. He now approaches the pinnacle of an acting career—a possible Oscar win.
The front-runner to win the Oscar for Best Actor is “The Whale’s” Brendan Fraser. The five-minute ovation at Cannes and his come-back story, not to mention his superb acting, will be hard to beat, but the confined sets for “The Whale” and the depressing subject matter might give other veteran actors a chance. Colin Farrell, for instance, has also gone many years without a vehicle worthy of his talent. Only “Elvis’” Austin Bishop is a break-through performance. Which of the three veteran nominees—-Nighy, Farrell, or Fraser—is likely to take home the statuette in March? We’ll all have to watch to find out. (And, of course, to make sure that nobody gets clocked unnecessarily during the broadcast.) The fifth and final nominee, Paul Mescal in “Aftersun,” barely has a shot.
Here’s an interesting quote from Bill Nighy about awards, in general, uttered in 2007 when the Golden Globes honored him: “I used to think that prizes were demeaning and divisive until I got one, and now they seem sort of meaningful and real.”