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Bill Nighy plays a dying council worker looking for meaning in Living, which reaches for profundity but ultimately rings hollow

At 73 years old, Love Actually star Bill Nighy earned his first ever Oscar nomination for his performance in Living. (Supplied: Transmission)

Akira Kurosawa has provided the basis for so much of contemporary film that remakes of the Japanese director's work could sustain their own film festival – or at least an entire Wikipedia page. It's a list that traverses borders of both genre and country; an encyclopedia of cinema in miniature.

There are the time-honoured spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars and Django, released just a couple of years apart in the 60s and both modelled on Kurosawa's samurai epic Yojimbo.

There are the zany trivia answers: Did you know that A Bug's Life – yes, the 1998 Pixar animation about politicking ants – is functionally the same film as Seven Samurai?

And there are, of course, bucketloads of flotsam, best jettisoned to the annals of history.

Living, the latest addition to this canon, reaches for glory – but finds itself firmly in the final category.

It's an adaptation of Ikiru (literally, 'To Live'), the 1952 drama widely considered one of Kurosawa's best and most intimate films, which sheds the thrills and chills of his best-known works in favour of a graceful dissertation on that knottiest of existential quandaries: the meaning of life.

In Ikiru, the Japanese screen legend Takashi Shimura stars as Mr Watanabe, a joyless bureaucrat. In Living, he becomes Mr Williams, played in an Oscar-nominated turn by Bill Nighy.

Kurosawa's Ikiru was in turn inspired by Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (Supplied: Transmission)

With a screenplay by Japanese British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Living transposes Kurosawa's Tokyo setting to a storybook version of mid-century London: a swarm of bowler hats and black cabs hurrying down cobblestoned streets pockmarked with reminders of the war.

The film's opening credits even come complete with an anachronistic film grain and an ornate title treatment bearing the serif swishes of yore.

It's a meticulous re-creation, though the effect is strangely eerie.

Where Ikiru delivered a sobering critique of Kurosawa's contemporary society, Living shoehorns us back into a version of the past so romanticised it's almost sickly.

The film's period setting aims for the rose-tinted glow of memory, but it comes across as uncanny – like an AI reconstruction of a bygone era or, worse, the fetishistic nostalgia of a Renaissance fair.

It's a strange choice, especially because Living and Ikiru share a cynicism about the drudgery of our lives.

Mr Williams, like his Japanese forebear, is a widower and council worker; he leads a small office in London's Public Works department, whiling away his hours shuffling and reshuffling the same stack of papers at his desk, and rarely uttering more than a sentence most days.

There's a militaristic rigidity to it all. When a new hire, Mr Wakeling (Alex Sharp), dares disrupt the ritual during a morning commute, his co-workers impress on him the rules of the routine: Respect the silence of the train station and always stay a few steps behind Mr Williams to allow him his priceless solitude.

Ishiguro only watched Ikiru once while writing the screenplay, and did not look at the original's script. (Supplied: Transmission)

That routine extends to the workplace, where any deviation from the norm is quickly subsumed by a perfect storm of bureaucracy.

Case in point: A trio of women who have arrived on Mr Wakeling's first day to submit a petition for a new playground are bandied from department to department until they're right back where they started, with little to show for their daylong escapade. Kafka would be proud.

Wakeling's dejection – having witnessed firsthand these tortuous office politics – is matched only by Williams's sheer indifference, any glimmer of tenderness long ago eroded by a career in the public service.

(Not to belabour the point, but the stultifying hamster wheel of work chafes hilariously and surely unintentionally against the exquisite production design of the county hall, with its mahogany finishings and the soft beams of sunlight that filter in through its arched windows.)

As Williams, Nighy betrays precious little – even as he receives the diagnosis that instigates his path to redemption.

His doctor tells him the grim news: cancer, terminal. Six months to live; nine at a stretch.

He parses the information with the same stony expression he wears in the office, mouth locked in a permanent hyphen.

Ishiguro wrote the role of Mr Williams with Nighy in mind – down to the character's name. (Supplied: Transmission)

And so begins his odyssey for something, anything to hold onto; for the faintest flicker of substance in a life so far defined by austerity.

There is some charm to this quest. See, for example, the burgeoning friendship he shares with a much younger employee, the ebullient Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood in fine form, brimming with the same guileless magnetism that made her a star in Sex Education) – an innocent pairing that sparks malicious gossip from onlookers.

Or the rakish layabout (Tom Burke) whom Williams meets in a seaside cafe and, on a whim, decides to follow around for a not-quite-debaucherous evening that ends in a circus tent.

Living also earned Ishiguro an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. (Supplied: Transmission)

These threads are enjoyable diversions in Living's search for meaning. But too often, like Williams himself, you might find yourself longing for more.

Nighy's character here is the exact inverse of his breakout role in Love Actually: Billy Mack, the rabble-rousing rockstar, complete with silver chain and popped collar.

Williams might do well to absorb some of Mack's spirited mouthiness. He remains altogether too restrained, too prim, even as he resolves to free himself of the inhibitive values that have imprisoned him for decades.

Living comes weighted with a pedigree of repression: Director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) made his name on queer films where desire always necessitates a degree of stealth; screenwriter Ishiguro, too, is a master of furtive glances and long-held secrets, his characters wielding silence as a weapon.

It makes sense, then, that Williams is frustratingly buttoned-up, refusing to indulge in any of the earthly pleasures you might associate with someone living out their final months.

But unlike either Hermanus's or Ishiguro's previous work – where repression eventually gives way to sweet release – there is no catharsis to be found in Living.

When, in flashes of lucidity, Williams manages to shake off his shackles – during a late night conversation with Miss Harris, or a suddenly invigorated crusade to build the damn playground that's been languishing in his in-tray for yonks – the screenplay veers towards the mawkish.

Talking to Vogue, Hermanus described how Nighy can "find that place of truth in every given moment in front of the camera". (Supplied: Transmission)

After so much equivocation, all we get is a few Hallmark-card truisms about happiness and living life to the fullest.

There's a scene where Miss Harris reveals to Williams her secret nickname for him, inspired by his overbearing restraint: Mr. Zombie.

We might say the same of Living and its hollow, dead-eyed swing at profundity.

Living is in cinemas now.

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