Bill Nighy in "Living." Credit: Sony Pictures Classic

Living | ★★★★ | Now in theaters

In terms of pure storytelling, the British period drama Living has quite the pedigree. The movie is adapted from a 1952 film by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, which was in turn inspired by an 1886 novella by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. That’s got to be a pretty good story, right?

And so it is. Set in 1950s England, Living stars Bill Nighy as Mr. Williams, a bureaucrat who has spent his entire life in the deadening routine of a London desk job. Chin up, steady on, and all that. When a medical diagnosis reveals he has mere months to live, Mr. Williams sets out on an improvised adventure—a last-minute attempt to learn a different way of living.

Mr. Williams begins by ditching work (“skiving” is the British term, evidently) for the first time ever. In an existential fog, he drifts to a seaside resort with the intention of “living a little” in the taverns, speakeasies, and penny arcades. It doesn’t really work out, although he does drunkenly sing a heartbreaking Scottish folk tune in a piano bar. If you’re the sort to cry at a movie like this, here is the first of several opportunities.

Mr. Williams eventually limps back to London and strikes up an unlikely and touching intergenerational friendship with Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), a cheerful young woman who recently and reasonably also left a soul-crushing office job. (They address one another as Mr. and Miss—it’s adorable.) Mr. Williams finds himself incapable of disclosing his condition to his son, so Miss Harris becomes his unlikely confidante and caregiver.

What happens from here has the graceful and rounded shape of a parable, which is what it is, really. Director Oliver Hermanus rides the vibe by deploying classic techniques—sweeping crane shots, montage sequences, wipe transitions, mirrors, mirrors, mirrors. In one delicious sequence, the pages of a desk calendar dissolve away to mark the passage of time. That shot hasn’t been used nonironically in 50 years. It still works!

Period details fill the corners of the frame: adverts for Schweppes tonic and Gordon’s gin; a burlesque show staged in a beachside big-top tent; some incredible hats. I also liked a scene with a doctor smoking cigarettes in his office.

Beloved British actor Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as Mr. Williams, a man for whom stillness has become a lifestyle. Nighy is one of the greats, and subtlety is his métier. He can tell entire stories with a twinkle of the eye, a knitting of a brow. As Miss Harris, the young English actress Aimee Lou Wood creates an intriguing and fully formed character, a fearless young woman capable of empathy beyond her years.

As a parable, Living is designed to be instructive. Its 150-year-old international provenance suggests the universal nature of its central theme: Don’t let your life drift away. Mr. Williams, looking back on his lonely existence, spills it for Miss Harris: “How did it happen? It just crept up on me, one day preceding the next. I didn’t notice what I was becoming. Then I saw you and I remembered what it was like to be alive like that.”

The moral of this story is no less sincere for being so familiar. It’s one of those stories we feel compelled to tell ourselves, over and over. But Living stitches in another thread concerning the numbing nature of bureaucracy, busy work, and terrible jobs in general. People really do lose their lives this way, slowly but literally.

There’s interesting contemporary resonance here. I found myself thinking of our recent turn toward employee rights, remote work, mental health, and self-care. Then there’s quiet quitting, which seems like some mild spasm of the culture’s collective unconscious. Could it be that we’re making progress in this area? It’s nice to think so.

Anyway, so long as we still have heart enough to appreciate a movie like this, we’ll be OK.

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