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‘Living’: Finding out what lasts, before it’s too late

Bill Nighy anchors screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro’s elegant adaptation of the 1952 Kurosawa film ‘Ikiru’

Bill Nighy in “Living.” (Ross Ferguson/Number 9 Films/Sony Pictures Classics)
(3 stars)

The central character in “Living” is nearly always addressed formally, as Mr. Williams. A longtime functionary in the public works department of the London County Council — played with masterful subtlety by Bill Nighy, who evinces hints of deep feeling beneath an outward frostiness — he is sometimes informally called Williams, but only behind his back. And he’s Dad to the stuffy son and daughter-in-law (Barney Fishwick and Patsy Ferran) who share a suburban house with the widowed paper pusher. (Perhaps stonewaller would be a more apt job description. Most days, Williams’s duties appear to include polite obstructionism for citizens petitioning for assistance from a giant municipal agency that seems designed to thwart anything that might actually benefit the public.)

But it’s his secret office nickname, discovered by Williams in this achingly poignant drama of regret, that best characterizes the film’s theme of carpe diem: Mr. Zombie. That succinct evocation of Williams’s condition — not quite alive, not quite dead — is the unkind but not inaccurate moniker that Williams learns a young co-worker (Aimee Lou Wood) had been calling him, before she quit — and before she develops the touching, outside-the-office friendship with her old boss that forms the emotional heart of the film. Her confession coincides with an announcement by Williams that he is gravely ill. It’s a bit of news that has forced him to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable things: He wants to live a little with the time he has left, yet he doesn’t remotely know how.

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Set in 1953, and directed by Oliver Hermanus from a screenplay Kazuo Ishiguro adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film “Ikiru,” “Living” is a quiet, nearly weightless story, well suited to Ishiguro’s elegant, almost restrained storytelling style. That style was showcased to great effect in “The Remains of the Day,” the 1993 film version 0f Ishiguro’s book, in which Anthony Hopkins delivered a memorable performance as a butler whose romantic reticence prevented him from being happy. Here, it is Nighy who gently guides a similar story of inertia, without sentimentality, ultimately delivering a message about what lasts, and what one loses when one waits too long to wake up.

“Living” mostly avoids sappiness. And it shows an actor at the peak of his powers.

Wood, a relative newcomer to film who first made her mark in the Netflix series “Sex Education,” is a perfect foil to Nighy. Her character Margaret’s appetite for living, as Williams calls it, gradually inspires him to try to make a small dent in the world — specifically, in the form of a tiny urban playground that three women have been asking for, but that has become encumbered by red tape. Wood’s warm and easily moved character makes for a lovely counterpoint to the passivity of the public works staff.

Other performances also leave an impression: Tom Burke (“Mank”), as the writer Williams meets while skiving (playing hooky) from work, and who shows the old man how to let loose a little, and Alex Sharp (“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”) as the new hire in Williams’s office, and from whose point of view the story is told.

But it is the memory of the unexpected and tender platonic friendship that grows between Williams and Margaret that lingers after the closing credits. And it is the chemistry between Nighy and Wood that makes this otherwise slightly chilly story glow from within.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some suggestive material and smoking. 102 minutes.

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