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December 31, 2022

Saturday Evening Movie Thread [moviegique]: Living

I was going to subject you all to a post about The Whale but an eleventh hour viewing the new Bill Nighy picture, Living, changed my mind. They are, in many ways, similar pictures, in that they are low-stakes dramas, primarily acting vehicles that rely heavily on their lead actors with all parties keenly aware of the prospect of winning awards "late in life". (Brendan Fraser, the "pretty boy" action/comedy star at 52 and Billy Nighy at 71, who didn't really break through internationally until he was about 50.

But my capsule for The Whale is pretty much, Brendan Fraser (and the other actors) are great in a story that is just really gross (in many meanings of the word). I can't recommend it unless you're a Fraser completist. (Actually, I have a 1,200 word review castigating it because, while I didn't hate it, it gets more loathsome the more I think about it, and the more keenly I become aware of how its twisted obeisance to wokeness destroyed a potentially fine story.)

Living, on the other hand, while super low-key and very, very British is easy to recommend, if you're in the mood for a drama, and almost the anti-Whale. It chooses, at every point, to lowball the delivery and let the audience bring their own intensity to the proceedings.

A man so punctual, him being late is grounds to call the police.

If you know Nighy from his lighter roles, Shaun of the Dead or Love, Actually, this movie may surprise you. All of the little comic tics—the ones that made it apparent he was the voice behind Davy Jones in Disney's Pirates series, e.g.—are gone. Nighy is a buttoned-down functionary in a massive post-war English bureaucracy whose main talent is calmly burying things no one wants to handle.

One day, he gets the bad news: He's going to die. Soon.

Now, "man (or woman) gets walking papers, goes berserk" is common enough as a setup to be a subgenre. (The comedy version, like Joe vs. the Volcano, typically has the hero discovering at the end that he's actually fine.) Comedy or drama, the point of the journey is to put into focus what's important in life—what it means to be living.

Living, which is based on an Akira Kurosawa screenplay and hews pretty closely to it as far as I can tell, has our protagonist, Williams, dabbling with the obvious. He finds a disreputable fellow to go drinking and clubbing with. Then he finds himself enamored of one of his underlings, though less in a sexual way than an admiration for her joie de vivre. This leads him back to his job, of all things, where he decides to actually do it and get something, however small, done.

Movies, while enjoyable, are no substitute for living.

This movie transcends many others of its kind because it doesn't end with the death of the main character. Williams definitely finds some joy and redemption in his last act of bureaucratic defiance—the building of a playground in a bombed out grotto between low-rent flats—but it's not like most movie moments where the playground gets built and everyone lives happily ever after. No, he leaves behind a legacy for his colleagues to follow.

It's a legacy they embrace heartily and then just as quickly abandon as things go back to normal. I mean, this isn't a fairy tale. We can't pretend that English bureaucracy got better from 1953, can we?

But there is a secondary character, a young version of Williams auspiciously named Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp). He joins the bureau the day before Williams gets his prognosis, and Williams sees in him the potential for change. The last part of the movie, then, becomes an arc where Wakeling grows to understand Williams more, and to understand what this last gesture should mean for him personally as well as the world at large.

I don't need to tell you the acting is good. It's freaking English. They have a crèche where they genetically engineer good actors. As someone who appreciates Shatnerian levels of hamfoolery, it was nice to see acting that was low-key without being flat and dead (which is how American actors define "natural"). As someone who loves Nighy's comedic tics, I missed them here, but only briefly: His performance is unlike anything I've seen out of him; he becomes this other person to where it seems like his face has changed shape.

There should be scads of frames from this movie that showcase its cinematography and lighting, but 99% of the pictures are of Nighy.

Aimee Lou Wood is very appealing as the girl who's too lively for County Hall. With her overbite and wide-spaced eyes, she's very English "girl next door" (cf. the French girl next door "girl next door"). It's hard for me to place the other actors correctly with their names as 90% of the photos I can find are of Nighy and Wood at an event for the movie. But there's a character, the one who shows Nighy a "good time", who reminded me of Orson Welles.

I mention this because the movie is shot very interestingly. It begins with stock footage, I believe, from about 1956, over which a classic font is used for the title and copyright notice, very much like Pearl. And then the opening shots of the movie are filmed (again like Pearl) as though they were in Technicolor, with a beautiful shot of a train going through the English countryside. In fact, a great many of the shots are provocative: Drab bureaucrats marching up and down stairs completely oblivious to the staggering beauty around them. And then most of the conversations are shot Finch-ian, with faces in heavy, heavy shadows. (A particularly great one had Wood's camera-side in utter darkness, except for a tiny point of light reflecting from her earring.)

But a great many of the shots evoked The Third Man. Long shadows. Post-war wreckage. Things swallowed up by or emerging from darkness.

In contrast to the acting, the lighting of this film is very dramatic. It never gets into showy movement or cartoonish angle-tilting, but it's one of the most thoughtfully aesthetic movies in terms of composition, blocking and lighting, than I've seen in a long time.

It's nigh (heh) perfect in that it succeeds fully in what it's trying to do. The only part I felt was a little overplayed was in the final notes of the score. The Boy disagreed with me, but I felt like the score (which was just right all the way through) was trying to do some (unneeded) heavy lifting on the final fade-to-black. The most minor of quibbles.

It may not be one's cup of tea, as it were, but I don't expect to see a better Oscar-bait movie this season. And I don't have to list 40 caveats about political correctness or gross sex stuff.


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posted by Open Blogger at 07:08 PM

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