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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
This is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese Film Ikiru or To Live released in 1982. The film is centred around a buttoned-up civil servant who works joylessly in the town planning department; he is a lonely widower estranged from his grasping son and daughter-in-law. In the original film, he was Mr Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura. Now he is Mr Williams, played by Bill Nighy.
Approaching retirement, his apparent reward for a life of pointless tedium, Mr Williams receives a stomach-cancer diagnosis with just one year to live. Following a mad and undignified attempt at boozy debauchery in the company of a disreputable writer (Tom Burke), Mr Williams realises there is one thing he might still achieve: forcing the city authorities to build the modest little children’s playground for which local mothers have been desperately petitioning and which he and his colleagues have been smugly preventing with their bureaucratic inertia. Through sheer force of will, and astonishing his co-workers with his deeply unbecoming new urgency and baffling desire to help people, Mr Williams is determined to get the playground built before death closes in.
Like the original, Hermanus and Ishiguro have set it in the 1950s as well, and in doing so ingeniously recast it as a historical piece where the post-war London County Council works beautifully within the context as a bridge between the two cultures.
This is a film which leaves audiences pondering some of life’s deeper questions. Would it be possible to achieve Mr Williams’s passionate dedication without the terminal illness? After all, haven’t we all got that same mortal prognosis? Or is the terrible paradox that we need to be told what we know already but are trying not to think about? A gentle, exquisitely melancholic film that tells a universal story.