The unlived life​ is a great modern theme. Not reality’s disappointments, but reality itself as a form of evasion, the wrong road taken. When we read or hear the word ‘living’, its double meaning occurs to us, as though murmured by a weary old friend. ‘Living and partly living.’ ‘You can’t call that living.’ ‘I must change my life so that I can live it.’ The first phrase is from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the second from Akira Kurosawa’s film Ikiru, the third from Susan Sontag’s notebooks. We could find many more examples. Why do we process this difficult thought so easily? Is that part of what it’s about?

Oliver Hermanus’s new film, Living, is a brilliant treatment of this theme, an essay on its mixed familiarity and elusiveness. It’s a version of the Kurosawa movie (ikiru means ‘to live’), with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, and it’s set in the 1950s, which is when the original film was made. But the location is England, where the remains of the day are tinged with a nostalgia that may or may not be ironic. Buses revolve around Piccadilly Circus, we glimpse the Burlington Arcade, there are boats on the Thames. Lots of cheery music on the soundtrack. This is the film’s opening sequence: ordinary life as some people remember it. Then we shift to what will become the film’s dominant perspective. Four men in suits and bowler hats board a train – cue elegant long shots of the engine and coaches, as if it was the 4.50 from Paddington and not the morning commute to Waterloo. We see these men at their desks in the London County Council building, surrounded by parodically tottering piles of papers. They do absolutely nothing all day. Well, not absolutely nothing. Sometimes they refuse to accept a task and pass it on to another office. Sometimes they take a folder from a pile and look at it and put it back. ‘It can wait,’ their boss says. ‘There’s no harm.’ We see the four men – played by Adrian Rawlins, Hubert Burton, Oliver Chris and Alex Sharp – back on the train later, and they become something like the mind of the story, our way into what it thinks, as the narrator is in Ikiru. And they are what lasts when the film’s hero dies.

Because, of course, the film has to be about death. It follows the Kurosawa quite closely, though it isn’t as sarcastic about doctors – not suggesting that they would rather lie than deliver a nasty diagnosis – and doesn’t court burlesque humour quite as much. It is subtly ironic throughout, and frequently moving, a double effect that comes mainly but not solely from Bill Nighy’s performance as Mr Williams, the boss of the men on the train, the passive-seeming but dictatorial civil servant who has never missed a day’s work in thirty years, and whose nickname, devised by the one irreverent worker in the office, is Mr Zombie. In the Kurosawa, he is called ‘the mummy’, and Ishiguro manages to include this thought as part of the zombie ascription: ‘Like Egyptian mummies but they can walk about.’ Even without this, we can see the earnest, proper question – what happens when a living person is told they are about to die? – transform itself into a slyer, more subversive one: what happens when a member of the living dead realises they are about to join the literally dead?

The answer is pretty dramatic. Or as dramatic as the dry, defensive character created by Nighy can allow his actions to be. He stays away from work for three days. He meets a writer at a seaside resort and learns about nightlife and drinking. This is fun in its way but not really a model for what he should do with his vanishing time. He is more engaged by Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), the irreverent inventor of the zombie nickname, whom he takes to lunch after bumping into her in the street. For him, she is not only an attractive young woman but an unintelligible instance of life itself, lived as if all you have to do is live it. He wishes he could ‘be alive like that for only one day’. He can’t, but it does him good to be near the phenomenon. His own description of what has happened is characteristically understated: ‘After receiving the news I took to looking around me a little.’

Williams rehearses in front of a mirror for the scene in which he will tell his son the news. In the end he never does, in part because he overhears the son and his daughter-in-law talking about what they will do with his pension. We sympathise with his shock, but we may also wonder why he is so surprised. Aren’t pensions in themselves mementoes of death? Or is the problem the son’s tone, his matter-of-fact eagerness about the not yet available money?

Nighy carries himself with a dignity that doesn’t disguise his need for help but doesn’t quite declare it either. We would feel sorry for him if we could, but he and the director aren’t really going to allow us to. What might they allow? Many reactions are possible, but they all go beyond the simple recognition of what mortality finally means. It is, after all, a zombie who is dying, a man who personifies an eerie sacrifice of the self to bureaucracy – or, less sympathetically, the use of bureaucracy as an enduring assertion of a controlling self. And this is why, in Living as in Ikiru, our hero dies a while before the end of the film.

There are legacies that aren’t pensions. But do they last? Before he dies, inspired by Miss Harris, Williams decides to return to work and reverse his ancient practice: he will actually do something, or get something done. He resurrects a project for a playground in the East End that he and his colleagues have been shunting from office to office for a long time, and by sheer insistence, by the energy of his patience, he gets it approved, and the playground is completed.

At this point, like a story by Borges, the film forks in interesting ways. The four men on the train talk about Williams, change their views of him, change them again, and finally make a pledge to follow the example of his last days. They will ‘learn his lesson’. ‘We are going to get things done,’ they solemnly declare. But of course they don’t get much done, and we soon see Williams’s successor sitting in the dead man’s seat, actually repeating his words as he commits a project to eternal non-action: ‘No harm.’

The other fork takes us to the playground one night, when the youngest member of the team is paying a visit as a gesture of remembrance. He meets a policeman who tells him a story, and, since this is a film, we see and hear it. Snow falls. Williams is sitting on a swing in the playground, rocking slightly, and singing a song (‘Oh Rowan Tree’) he sang during his night on the tiles with the playwright. Unfortunately for the film, some will think, this scene is not allowed to speak for itself, because the young man has received a note from Williams which explains how he should interpret the policeman’s story in the light of his own behaviour. A better non-explanation is to be found at the end of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, a source for both Ikiru and Living:

‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more!’

He drew in a breath, stopped in the middle of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

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Vol. 45 No. 1 · 5 January 2023

Michael Wood mentions that in Oliver Hermanus’s film Living, four men who work for London County Council are shown on the morning commute wearing suits and bowler hats (LRB, 1 December 2022). I worked at County Hall in the early 1960s, and I can’t recall any instance in which an employee wore a bowler hat. Indeed, the film’s portrayal of work at County Hall is a fantasy.

One thing I can record, however, and with deep regret, is that a colour bar was operated against black men who applied for the heavily advertised jobs as ambulance drivers. I have no idea how far up the chain of the Labour-controlled council this policy was sanctioned. ‘Turn them down on whatever reasonable grounds you can think of,’ I was told when I worked at the Council’s Waterloo Road Ambulance HQ for a couple of months. One or two of these applicants had to be interviewed, I was also told, ‘but for goodness sake don’t mention the colour of their skin.’

Peter Rowland
London E11

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