“What would you do if you had six months left to live?” asks the doctor who diagnoses a do-nothing bureaucrat with terminal cancer in “Ikiru,” a 1952 masterpiece I suspect precious few of those who see its English-language remake, “Living,” will recall. Quite unlike anything else in Akira Kurosawa’s career, “Ikiru” ranks among the Japanese director’s best: With no samurai battles or set-pieces, the low-key contemporary melodrama raises profound questions about how we choose to spend the limited time we’re afforded, focusing on a stoic functionary about whom even the narrator apologizes, “He might as well be a corpse.”
Culturally specific as so much of “Ikiru” may be, its lessons translate quite well to midcentury British society, courtesy of Nobel-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who did the heavy lifting of adapting it to 1953 London for director Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”). In “Living,” the dying man is played by Bill Nighy, whose unusually understated performance is all the more striking, given what a firecracker the actor remains well into his 70s — ever since stealing “Love Actually” out from under a much younger ensemble, really.
Nighy’s career has enjoyed an almost two-decade second act, and it’s possible to imagine the BAFTA winner scooping up a fresh shelf of trophies for this performance. “Living” is undeniably moving, although perhaps not to the same degree that Kurosawa achieved, in part because Ishiguro is so committed to the British art of biting one’s tongue and swallowing one’s emotions. That is to say, Ishiguro has aligned “Ikiru” with his best-known work, “The Remains of the Day.” That book — whose title alludes to what time we have left — concerned a butler so committed to his post that he allowed the love of his life to slip him by.
’Twould be a shame to die never having lived, argues this film, focusing on the same modest achievement that the civil servant in “Ikiru” used to give meaning to his existence: A group of ladies has come into the Public Works office, asking to have a hazardous area in their neighborhood transformed into a children’s playground. A man with nothing to show for his decades of service, Nighy’s formerly ineffectual Mr. Williams makes it his personal mission to get the job done before he kicks the bucket.
“Living” introduces Mr. Williams through the eyes of a new hire, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), as yet uncorrupted by the office’s practiced art of dodging responsibility. With their neatly tailored suits and matching bowler hats, the paper pushers in Public Works seem to have realized that sticking their necks out is the surest way to lose their heads — initiative endangers their jobs — and so, they spend their days referring cases to other departments. The goal, while hardly Hippocratic, is to “do no harm.” The result is that they do no good either.
In Peter, Mr. Williams recognizes a younger version of himself. This character, invented by Ishiguro, lends a Dickensian dimension to the retelling: Mr. Williams is hardly as selfish as Ebenezer Scrooge, but like the old miser of “A Christmas Carol,” he’s squandered his days. Too oblivious to know what he doesn’t know, Peter provides Mr. Williams with a unique opportunity to pass on what he realized too late. Similarly, a young employee who’d left the office before it could crush her, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), suggests the kind of woman he probably ought to have married.
Mr. Williams does have a son, Michael (Barney Fishwick), but he can’t bring himself to tell the lad about his diagnosis — and besides, he and his girlfriend Fiona (Patsy Ferran) act as if he’s already dead. They’re already making plans for their inheritance. But who can blame them? As Margaret points out, Mr. Williams goes through life like a zombie. And so the dying man keeps the news to himself, withdrawing half his savings and heading to the seaside, where he intends to cram some fun into his final days. In what could easily be the film’s most pathetic line, Mr. Williams winces when a stranger (Tom Burke) tells him to “live a little,” confessing, “I don’t know how.”
Building a playground won’t change the world. But it will change Mr. Williams. When he dies (surprisingly early in the film), his family and co-workers are left to wonder why this project should have meant so much to him. We know more than they do, of course. Though it stacks endings upon endings in an effort to wring tears, the film is wise to leave some things unanswered. “Living” isn’t nearly as subtle as it purports to be, although it can feel that way, considering how much these characters hold back — and this, one supposes, is what audiences want from an Ishiguro script.
Meanwhile, director Hermanus seems to have Visconti’s “Death in Venice” as much in mind as Kurosawa’s original. He and his production team put considerable work into re-creating postwar London, opening the film up and trying to match its locations to the grainy old footage of the city glimpsed in the retro-style opening credits. There’s a corseted “correctness” to it — the costumes, the customs, the ever-so-proper way of speaking (or not speaking, as the case may be) — that we associate with Merchant Ivory movies. And yet we sense that repression is not Hermanus’ normal mode of expression. Nor is it Nighy’s. We desperately want to see Mr. Williams live a little, and might even allow ourselves to do the same.