Why Bill Nighy’s performance in ‘Living’ is not to be missed

Why Bill Nighy’s performance in ‘Living’ is not to be missed | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Sunday 6 November 2022 By Matt d’Ancona

In the history of cinema, the daringly prolonged close-up shot of the human face has been one of the simplest and yet most powerful techniques available to movie directors with the courage and skill to hand over the whole screen to an individual’s features and to the story they tell. 

Think, for instance, of the anguish of Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc; Liv Ullmann as the mute actress in Bergman’s Persona; and the seething Bob Hoskins as gangland boss Harold Shand, trapped on the back seat of a car in the final minutes of The Long Good Friday.

To this list must now be added Bill Nighy in Living (selected cinemas, 4 November), a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru (1952), relocated to London in 1953. As Mr Williams, a staid and almost pathologically conventional County Hall bureaucrat who learns he has terminal cancer, Nighy gives the movie its principal emotional canvas, with a face of subtle yet preternatural expressiveness. 

Cohabiting in suburban Esher with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran), the widower Williams has become emotionally unmoored even from his closest family. After his diagnosis, he sits alone in the dark of his sitting room, immobilised not only by the hammer blow of imminent mortality, but also by the paralysis of indecision. With only months left to live, what is he supposed to do?

Heading off to a seaside resort with a briefcase full of sleeping pills, vaguely intending to end it all, he encounters the writer Sutherland (Tom Burke, brilliant as ever) who volunteers to show him the bohemian side of life. They go on a drinking spree; Williams stands up and sings the Scottish folk song ‘Oh, Rowan Tree’; he swaps his bowler hat for a jaunty trilby (in the tightly geared world of social codes and signals in which he operates, it’s a striking act of mutiny).

Choosing to make the most of the time remaining to him, Williams champions a group of East End women who want to turn a derelict site into a playground. Ditching his former inclination towards delay and postponement – ‘We can keep [the file] here. There’s no harm’ – he becomes a force of sharp-elbowed urgency and impassioned focus, refusing to accept the inertia of the many departments in County Hall. In this personal crusade lies some form of personal redemption and the prospect of a fulfilled life, if only for a few months.

Aged 72, Nighy delivers his best screen performance to date in Living; one that has certainly put him in the frame for an Oscar nomination. It’s well worth a watch. 

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Why Bill Nighy’s performance in ‘Living’ is not to be missed | Soho House


Nil By Mouth (selected cinemas, 4 November)
It’s excellent to see Gary Oldman’s under-acknowledged masterpiece back in movie houses, remastered by the BFI National Archive to mark its 25th anniversary. 

Set in the bleak urban estates, pubs and criminal demi-monde of south London, we are on edge from the very first minutes. Winstone – in a career-best performance – has never been more intense or menacing. His family fears his aura of alcohol-soaked violence; his friends appease him. When he detonates, as we know he will, the consequences are horrific. Yet it is his principal victim, his pregnant partner Val – in a performance for which Burke quite rightly won the best actress award at Cannes – who finally speaks truth to him in a scene of extraordinary anger, grief and eloquence.

While we are never encouraged to sympathise with Ray, we learn enough about his upbringing to get a sense of how he has been brutalised, how grotesque a version of masculinity has been bequeathed to him, and to ask whether the cycle can be broken. Nil By Mouth offers no glib answers. But – sadly – the movie feels as topical today as it did in 1997. Not to be missed. 

Why Bill Nighy’s performance in ‘Living’ is not to be missed | Soho House
Why Bill Nighy’s performance in ‘Living’ is not to be missed | Soho House


Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino 

Quentin Tarantino has pledged that his next movie will also be his last and that he will then retire from filmmaking to become a man of letters and a movie commentator. The process began last year with his novelisation of 2019’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and in July he launched his hugely entertaining Video Archives podcast, in which he and Roger Avary review old VHS movies salvaged from the long-closed Video Archives rental store in Manhattan Beach, California.

As further evidence of his new mission in life, Tarantino has now published this terrific, spirited collection of essays on movies, directors and how they have shaped his life. Each is the reflection of a true movie geek, who grew up loving grindhouse flicks as much as European-influence arthouse fare.

Should we take seriously his claim that he is going to hang up his director’s megaphone for good after one more movie? Few film-makers love mischief as much as Tarantino. But on the evidence of this tremendously readable book, he is already relishing his second career.


The Greatest Thing I’ll Never Learn by Dylan
Declaring herself a ‘rockstar stuck in a pop star’s body’, 23-year-old Natasha Woods is on a sharp ascent. Having built a core audience on TikTok during the pandemic, Dylan’s principal theme on this eight-track mixtape is the emotional rollercoaster of youth. But her hard rock roots give an edge to these standard themes, and a pop-punk drama to her distinctive sound that is bracing and infectious.

These are not saccharine songs of lonely bedroom angst; they are meant to be played on a bar jukebox, and destined to be performed in stadiums. She’ll be a superstar a year from now. Tour details here – though tickets are already hard to come by.

That’s all for now. Take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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