Review: Living – An Astonishing Film That Probes The Pitfalls Of An Unexamined Life

Aug 23, 2023

It’s quite likely that when many of us think of the celebrated British actor Bill Nighy, we think of him as the dissolute, clownish old rocker in the movie Love Actually. A great performance, but his range is much broader than that, of course.

Nighy is widely regarded as a leading character actor of remarkable virtuosity. For proof, you have only to see his latest movie Living, a compelling though melancholy drama about a senior citizen engaged in a defiant reckoning with what has been his all too predictable professional life.

A Post-War London Drama

Living is a post-World War II London drama in which Nighy plays Rodney Williams, the head of the Public Works Department, who receives a terminal health diagnosis. After a period of shock, the character begins to take stock of his life, a process that transforms a bowler-hatted functionary into a fully engaged (though still fundamentally decent and correct) individualist.

Mr. Williams is a creature of habit who is referred to by a colleague as “Mr. Zombie.” When his doctor tells him he has only a few more months to live, his response is an unwitting parody of stiff-upper-lip British restraint: “Quite.”

With its theme of a repressed Englishman deciding to finally let go and live a little, the movie feels like a holdover from that great run of Merchant-Ivory movies – art-house films about repression and roads not taken that became both critical and box-office hits in the 1980s and ’90s: A Room with a View and Howard’s End both being examples of the genre.

The Narrative Heart Of The Movie

The narrative heart of the movie emerges after a mad and undignified attempt at boozy debauchery in the company of a louche writer and a delightful interlude with his much-younger female colleague (with whom he has allowed himself to become mildly infatuated) at Fortnum & Mason, a lavish café/restaurant located within an upmarket department store in London.

These entertaining episodes aside, Mr. Williams comes to realise there is one thing he might still achieve: forcing the city authorities to build the modest little children’s playground for which local mothers have been desperately petitioning and which he and his colleagues have been smugly preventing with their bureaucratic inertia.

Through sheer force of will, and astonishing his co-workers with his deeply unbecoming new urgency and baffling desire to help people, Mr. Williams is determined to get the playground built before death closes in.

An Unexamined Life

Living is a movie about the dangers of living what Socrates so famously referred to as an unexamined life: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” There’s an important lesson there for all of us.

Though wonderfully well worth watching, Living is one of those movies that – though critically praised to the skies – has not enjoyed wide general release despite it having earned two Oscar nominations at the 95th Academy Awards. The two nominations were for “Best Actor”, and “Best Adapted Screenplay”. Netflix released Living on June 5, 2023. However, if you are unable to access it through Netflix, it’s available for purchase or as a rental through Amazon Prime.

Should you decide to purchase it on DVD ensure that the DVD version you acquire meets DVD Region 1: U.S., U.S. Territories, Canada and Bermuda specifications. The U.K. version does not work on Region 1 DVD players.



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