LIVING. Mr. Zombie Dies

Living is abruptly split into two incongruent segments at one point.

Maciej Kaczmarski

14 November 2023

Akira Kurosawa is one of the most frequently adapted and quoted creators in the history of cinema – from John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, through Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, to snippets in The Mandalorian series. Oliver Hermanus’s Living is a reimagining of Kurosawa’s 1952 classic, Rashomon, a film that belongs to the top tier of the Japanese filmmaker’s extensive body of work. However, the new version fails to do justice to its magnificent predecessor, reducing Kurosawa’s masterpiece to the level of a formulaic tearjerker reminiscent of a Netflix production.

Rodney Williams, a mid-level bureaucrat in a London local government office, is a military type: stern, uncompromising, with a stone-faced expression, piercing eyes, and narrow lips drawn into a grimace of indifference. He mechanically performs his dull job, sitting at a desk piled with stacks of documents, applications, and letters. His subordinates refer to him behind his back as “Mr. Zombie.” This reserved bureaucrat, who appears lifeless, will soon be truly dead: he receives a diagnosis of advanced-stage stomach cancer, and doctors give him six months. Mr. Williams contemplates suicide but eventually decides to fill his last months with meaning, action, and altruism. He attempts to mend relationships with his son, spends time with a charming (and much younger) office colleague, and pursues a civic plan to build a playground in one of the city’s neighborhoods – even though one day he stops showing up to work without warning.

Kazuo Ishiguro, the screenwriter for Living, is known for the novel The Remains of the Day, adapted into a film by James Ivory in 1993. It told the story of a perfect butler whose obsessive loyalty to rigid principles thwarted his chances of personal happiness. Mr. Williams in Oliver Hermanus’s film is molded from the same clay – a victim of English disciplinary rigor resulting in emotional deficiencies and the suppression of any vivid emotional reactions. However, Mr. Stevens was a multidimensional character, and his transformation revealed itself gradually, although it brought about nothing more than self-awareness because it was already too late for any changes in the butler’s life. In contrast, Mr. Williams’s transformation is depicted in an entirely unconvincing manner: the Dickensian Scrooge becomes a philanthropist immediately after hearing the diagnosis and changing his hat – from a bowler to a fedora, presumably symbolizing an irreversible break from the world of rigid rules in favor of spontaneity.

Other details are equally implausible. When Mr. Williams travels to a seaside resort, his guide through the garden of earthly delights (pubs and strip clubs) is a sluggish writer who not only lacks any élan vital but also disappears as quickly as he appeared. A colleague from the office, Miss Harris, for a year and a half knew nothing about her supervisor, but for some inexplicable reason, she starts spending almost all her free time with him. Similarly, the motives behind the new office employee, Mr. Wakeling, who wants to continue “Mr. Williams’s work,” are left unexplored, even though he exchanged only a few words with him before he disappeared like camphor. This disappearance is another manifestation of absurdity: how could Mr. Williams not show up at work for so long, and then suddenly return as if nothing happened, pushing forward ideas he had previously rejected? Why did no one inquire about his absence, visit his home, notify the police, or take any action?

The credibility of these behaviors rhymes with the film’s style. On the surface, the realities of 1950s England seem convincingly portrayed, as are the actors with average physiognomies. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the presented world is not realistic but hyperrealistic: the suits are too crisply starched, the streets are too clean, and the sky is too blue (the intense, saturated color palette clearly imitates the Technicolor system). This Baudrillardian simulacrum resembles a stroll through a sterile museum or a themed amusement park. This parody is multi-layered because Living is a South African director’s adaptation of a Japanese film that clumsily mimics British style but is essentially very American: full of simplifications and devoid of nuances. As a result, the film resembles generic, styleless productions from streaming services, overflowing with their offerings.

To make matters worse, Living is abruptly split into two incongruent segments at one point. Mr. Williams dies in the 70th minute of the film, but the action continues for another half hour! From this point on, the viewer witnesses a forced concatenation of scenes, some of which have little to do with the main plot. For example, Mr. Wakeling – a secondary character with a screen time of at most fifteen minutes – starts dating Miss Harris, and viewers witness the budding feelings between them. The problem is that, at this stage, viewers couldn’t care less about Mr. Wakeling and Miss Harris because this film is not about them. Meanwhile, the plot that demanded the most development and explanation – Mr. Williams’s relationship with his son and daughter-in-law – is put on hold. This is all the more frustrating because this is where the film’s greatest potential lay, as evidenced by the dinner scene (one of the few good moments in the film), during which emotional barriers and conventions prevent an honest conversation.

Much has been said about the outstanding acting in Living. Bill Nighy, a man with the appearance of a Roman patrician, is a very good actor, but rather a character actor than a lead – one who can shine in a cameo but may not necessarily carry an entire film. In this context, an Oscar nomination for the role of Mr. Williams is undeserved and seems more like filling a gap in a mediocre film year than genuine appreciation for a correct (and nothing more) performance. Aimee Lou Wood, as Miss Harris – the girl who was supposed to bring brightness to Mr. Williams’s fading life – is dull and colorless, with her main expression being the squint of her tear-shining eyes. As for the other actors, there is not much to say, perhaps because the script didn’t allow for much. Of course, compared to Marvel and other film-like products for thirty-year-old children, this is not the worst thing, but it is entirely unnecessary. It is better to reach for the still impactful original by Kurosawa.