Review: Nighy puts the life in new film ‘Living’

Bill Nighy in Living (British Film Institute)

What happens when a man realizes that he hasn’t been truly living, just existing, but he only recognizes the fact after he learns that he has a year or perhaps less to live?

That’s the gist of the melancholic film “Living,” staring Bill Nighy in his role as Mr. Rodney Williams for which he earned a Best Actor nomination for the 2023 Academy Awards, announced earlier this week.

His performance probably isn’t showy enough to nab the Oscar against the likes of Colin Farrell in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Brendan Fraser in “The Whale,” or Austin Butler in “Elvis,” but Nighy’s understated Mr. Williams is my favorite of all the nominated performances.

Nighy is understated but excellent in the role of buttoned-up Williams, who has led a droning, ordinary life as a bureaucrat in his gray pinstriped suit and bowler hat in 1950s London. He’s all duty and modesty, doing his work and keeping his head down, much like everyone else with his stiff posture and downtrodden manner.

Nighy’s Williams is respectable, but unnoticeable as he goes about his day-to-day business, until he learns that he has a short time to live. The news isn’t exactly unexpected, but it does click off something in his head as the gloomily restricted man decides to live a little in his final days.

Nighy, known mostly for his character roles in films like “Love Actually,” the “Underworld,” “Harry Potter,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises, makes a boring man interesting as he discovers a spark of life in his dying days in this remake of director Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film “Ikiru,” which was an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”

Director Oliver Hermanus does a wonderful job of capturing the futility and frustrating nature of government work in the film that is slyly satirical.

Low-key as the film may be, there is a subtle beauty in its costuming (Sandy Powell), and production design (Helen Scott). Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography is sharp and colorful despite its rather bleak color palate. It all works impeccably well to enhance Hermanus’ superbly directed film.

Having never missed a day of work in his career, Mr. Williams plays hooky in a grasp for the life that he’s missed.

His effort is rewarded by forging two new friendships with ne’er-do-well Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke) and Miss Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood). Sutherland takes Williams on a tour of nightclubs and arcades, while Harris tenderly becomes a confidant of sorts.

Had they had met earlier, and he had been 30 years younger or she 30 years older, a spark might have ignited. Maybe not.

Life and “Living” can seem cruel in that way.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 42 min.
Grade: B+

New in Local Theaters – Jan. 27, 2023

Infinity Pool (R) 1 hr. 57 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)

Pathaan (NR) 2 hr. 26 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)

Living (PG-13) 1 hr. 42 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Towne)

Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist (NR) 2 hr. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback)

Fear (R) 1 hr. 40 min. (trailer)(Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)

Hunt (NR) 2 hr. 12 min. (trailer)(Malco Springdale)

Women Talking (PG-13) 1 hr. 44 min. (trailer)(Malco Pinnacle)

Classic Corner – Groundhog Day

Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day (Columbia Pictures)

Billy Murray has made a career and evidently a life out playing the arrogant but lovable buffoon on and off the big screen. Well, maybe not so lovable off screen as more and more stories slip out.

Evidently Murray made life torture for the likes of Richard Dreyfuss on the set of “What About Bob?” and Lucy Liu on the set of “Charlie’s Angels” as well as offending a young Geena Davis while filming the 1990 comedy “Quick Change.”

More recently, Murray settled a complaint with a woman, whom he reportedly paid $100,000 after “he straddled her and kissed her through a mask” on set when Covid-19 protocols were in play between takes.

Funny guy, huh?

Actually, despite such awful behavior, Murray can be incredibly funny and charming, at least on film.

Proof positive is his 1993 romantic-comedy “Groundhog Day,” which will play on the big screen at 7 p.m. Thursday and 4 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Malco Razorback in Fayetteville and the Malco Pinnacle Hills in Rogers to celebrate the movie’s 30th anniversary.

In the fanciful romantic, Murray plays Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman with a bad attitude sent to Punxsutawney, Pa. to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration there.

Blowing his prediction of a sunny Groundhog Day, an epic snowstorm hits the town preventing him from returning home and forcing him to stay overnight in the small town, whose folksy denizens drive him crazy.

Phil goes to bed looking forward to getting out of town in the morning, but when he awakens, he finds himself caught in a time loop where he is forced to repeat the same day over and over again.

Certainly, the time-loop may ploy seems cliched to today’s audiences who have seen it time again in various TV sit-coms, dramas and all sorts of films, but back in 1993, the conceit didn’t seem so, well, conceited.

The little ways director Harold Ramos and Murray change the narrative as Phil awakens for a reset each morning is hilarious, and Murray’s chemistry with co-star Andie MacDowell, who plays Rita, sparkles. The hijinks of Chris Elliott as Phil’s cameraman works well, too, and aren’t overdone.

Murray’s character begins to change slightly with every new day, ostensively becoming a better person, and finally the loop is broken so Phil and Rita can truly begin their life together.

I enjoyed the film immensely upon first seeing. Despite the holiday tie, I don’t re-watch it every year like I do several Christmas-themed movies, but with the opportunity to see it in theaters again, it might be fun to enter a time loop back to 1993, if only for a couple of hours.