If the wonderful Bill Nighy were a poker player, you’d get the sense he’d never make huge bluffs or needle his opponents, and if he were to suffer a bad beat, he would shrug and say something along the lines of, “Well, that’s the way the cards fall sometimes, right?” even as something more intense might be dancing in his eyes. He is an actor of grace whether he’s hitting notes large or small, and it is never not a pleasure to watch him execute his craft, whether he’s taking a big bite out of the screen in “Love, Actually” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies or tackling more serious fare in films such as “Notes on a Scandal” and “Sometimes Always Never.”
Nighy’s skill set is perfectly tailored to the lead role in “Living,” a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” that keeps the 1950s time period and stays true to the most important plot points but shifts the story from Tokyo to London. From the opening credits that look exactly like movies from the 1950s through the meticulously crafted costumes and production design, “Living” instantly immerses us in a post-war London populated by men in suits and bowler hats, and women in simple dresses and pearls, a place of order and restraint — which suits Nighy’s Mr. Williams just fine.
As the head of the Public Works Department, which prides itself on shuffling paperwork and creating the illusion of being busy while getting very little done, the widowed Mr. Williams is so aloof and robotic one of his underlings has given him the nickname of “Mr. Zombie.” He spends his days overseeing his small staff in a room practically bursting with silence, then heads to the home he shares with his bumbling son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and Michael’s wife Fiona (Patsy Ferran), who is cold and rude to Mr. Williams and wishes he would just die and leave them the house and his money.
Not much of a life — but when Mr. Williams is told he has only about six months to live, he begins to make some major changes, albeit with his signature low-key persona. He simply stops going to work for a long stretch of time. He withdraws a large sum of cash from his bank account and befriends a charming rogue named Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke), who offers to show Mr. Williams a good time, involving drinks and songs and women. He strikes up a platonic relationship with Miss Margaret Harris (a delightful Aimee Lou Wood), a former employee now working at a pub.
And when he returns to work, he makes it his mission to complete a long-delayed project: converting a wartime bombing site into a children’s playground. (A scene in which Mr. Williams goes about a room, personally shaking hands with every bureaucrat in a different department who might help him, is tender and dignified and moving and just great.)
About two-thirds of the way through the film, “Living” takes such an abrupt turn that it almost feels as if several key scenes had been inadvertently excised — but then we wind back in time, and all is answered. Throughout, Bill Nighy carries the film effortlessly on his slender shoulders, reminding us of why he’s an international treasure.