Opinion: Is it ever too late?




Living (2022) stars Bill Nighy as Mr Williams, a stuffed-shirt who appears to be sleepwalking through his dull paper-shuffling life. Trapped within endless rounds of bureaucracy in a local government department, each day seems very much the same as the last. Until a terminal cancer diagnosis leaves him with just one year to live. This triggers a sequence of out-of-character events and the narrative suddenly shifts up a gear.

Nighy is skeletal, scraggy, thin-lipped and softly spoken. He actually looks quite poorly. His character, Mr Williams, is reserved to the point of suffocating silence. Stilted questions, and answers, emerge very slowly, if at all. Emotional and physical pain are etched all over his face, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch. But this is nicely offset by a pleasant, rhythmic slowness to the film which seems to accurately reflect the dull, ploddy pace of Mr Williams’ day to day life. Following the diagnosis, and a short season of hedonism, Mr Williams seems to wake up from the municipal trance he’s in. He begins to focus on completing a task which actually matters and, perhaps more importantly for the philosophically minded among us, is within his power to achieve.

Suddenly his life has meaning, purpose and direction. Or, more accurately, with his change of heart he has discovered a purpose which was right under his nose the whole time. It’s a modest purpose to be sure, but one which will benefit the local children. A small play area, to be built on a former bomb site, a stand against the overwhelming tide of departmental bureaucracy. Mr Williams works with considerable urgency and energetically draws his bewildered team members into the work at hand.

Friendless, lonely and shy, the newly awakened Mr Williams also attempts to strike up the beginnings of a connection with two young colleagues. Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) and Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp). He relates to them both quite warmly, in a displaced fatherly kind of way. The whole story has been gently steeped into a sort of milky warm post-war 1950s sadness. Every reel oozes with the lingering unspoken regrets which must have drenched that era. For me, the biggest sadness was Mr Williams lack of connection with his biological son and daughter-in-law. And as if the viewer hasn’t already suffered enough, the clever film-makers round things off with a further topping of searing disconnection and acute sadness, by leaving these key family relationships painfully unresolved.

But I must not, and will not, judge Mr Williams for this apparent fatherly failure. Because, the truth is until we’re faced with it, most of us really don’t know how we would respond to such a serious diagnosis. We simply don’t know how strong or how vulnerable we might feel, or how much head space we might have left to work with. We don’t know what our priorities might be and whether they would shapeshift when death looms large. Most of us don’t know these things because we can’t possibly know them. Because we haven’t had to face up to that reality, not directly, because in order to get on with the job of living a lot of us manage our own death as an abstract concept, something which happens to other people.

In those long slow, impeccably shot scenes, in the painful pauses, in the divine piano pieces, we are invited not just to sit with Mr Williams, but to become Mr Williams. In essence Living is a work of art which invites us to sit and rest within the theatre of our own mortality for a while. We are invited to imagine that scenario, not to panic but to ponder, to ask and to consider, our own questions around how we could best use our allotted time. To review what we want to give ourselves to, and to whom we want to be given.

In yet other scenes Living takes us gently by the hand and asks us to examine the dead and dying parts of our own hearts, the bits of us that we have given up on, it asks us to consider how we might wake up to the world around us and live better. The awareness of death and the numbering of our days, is carefully framed as a gift which holds the potential to switch on the lights. Living demonstrates how new possibilities may still emerge, though little time is left, through exercising the power of free will.

Living is now available to watch on Prime TV, we have a pretty big telly but in reality, even though there are no car chases, explosions or special effects, I actually wish I’d seen this movie at the cinema. That would have been a pleasant evening. The costumes, the scenery, the settings, the cinematography by Jamie D Ramsay, the whole 1950s vibe is really quite exquisite and fully deserving of the immersive big screen experience. Transported to another era by the rich musical score, which was so delish, I was almost tempted to close my eyes and forget the film. Living is an absorbing slow burn movie with a meaty universal theme now available to watch, if you have the courage, on Prime TV.

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.

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