The audience that walked down the corridor to Cinema 1 at The Palace Barracks fit into no particular age bracket. You didn’t have to be confronting your mortality to be taught about life by Bill Nighy and the filmmakers of Living (2022). Oliver Hermanus’ film was a delicate and poignant window into a dying man’s life and a highlight of Bill Nighy’s screen career.
After the large portrait of Bill Nighy fades from the cinema screen, the audience are welcomed into the story by a different actor. We are introduced to the world by the upbeat Mr Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) who is traveling into London for his first day in the Public Works sector of the County Council. Mr Wakeling nervously straightens the tie around his neck and greets his new colleagues with cheery optimism. This positivity is starkly contrasted by the many sullen and serious commuters, including his imposing boss, Mr Rodney Williams (Bill Nighy).
While Mr Williams is depicted as fairly “Frosty,” we are given the impression that he is uninspired and set in his routines, rather than purposefully unpleasant. Every day, Mr Williams reads countless proposals that no other department wants, and discards them until a later date that never seems to come.
However, early into the film, Mr Williams’ routine is broken by some conclusive and terminal news from his doctor. Recent tests have revealed that Mr Williams only has six to nine months to live. This is where Bill Nighy really shines in this film. For such a large and complex issue, Nighy gives us the small, private moments of this struggle and really draws the audience into his inner world. Nighy’s graceful exploration of this topic makes the film a joy to watch, even while I was tearing up.
A more memorable scene is when Mr Williams struggles to articulate his prognosis to his son. We see him grapple with this new and scary information, while his son is dismissive and honestly, quite easy to dislike. Nighy’s subtle and rapidly shifting emotions made my chest tight for the whole scene as I willed him to get the words out.
As the film progresses, we watch Mr Williams find joy, connection, and a new passion for life. After letting so many years slip away unnoticed, he becomes determined to start living again. We witness Mr Williams explore the world with a fresh perspective and find purpose in one of the proposals he had once discarded.
I also cannot leave out the dazzling performances by Aimee Lou Wood as Miss Harris and Tom Burke as Mr Sutherland. Wood, especially, brings a lightness and authenticity to her role that makes the audience trust her as Mr Williams does. Although the film’s messages are complicated and considerable, I believe that they can be best summed up by a woman who spoke to me when we were leaving the cinema.
“That was what life is really about.”
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