It’s probably not fair, this season especially, to recoil at the remaking of a classic. “A Christmas Carol,” for one, has been told and retold countless times, and who among us won’t jump at the chance to watch the Muppets or Bill Murray do their version of Dickens.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film “Ikiru” has no holiday connection, but it likewise concerns the late-in-life redemption of an old man whose awakening comes amid softly falling snow. There’s a good case to be made that “Ikiru,” with its sublime sense of sorrow and compassion and its stunning third-act perspective switch, ought to be staged and restaged annually like “A Christmas Carol,” to perennially stir our spirits. “Ikiru,” after all, drew from the at-death’s-door existentialism of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”
And yet, I can’t help a “bah humbug” welling up in me over Oliver Hermanus’ coolly elegant “Ikiru” remake, “Living.” The film, written by the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, is a handsome piece of work and finely acted, particularly Bill Nighy, who stars as a British civil servant named Mr. Williams.
But, well, it’s an inalienable right that if your heart belongs to a movie, you can skeptically eye any remake. My grip on “Ikiru” (which translates as “To Live”) may be too tight to loosen that bias and embrace this dispassionate, eminently British spin on near- sacred cinematic ground. But I found it too neatly arranged, too crisply composed to register as much more than a pale reflection.
The first thing you notice about “Living” is its starkly stylish photography. Hermanus, the South African filmmaker of last year’s striking Apartheid-era drama “Moffie,” and his cinematographer, Jamie D. Ramsay, open the film with a chorus of bowler hats and pinstriped suits on a train platform outside London in 1953. As exquisite as the images are, their formal beauty enhances the sense that “Living” is more content at an artful remove from daily life than earnestly reckoning with it.
Of course, no one does repression quite like Ishiguro, author of “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go.” In transferring “Ikiru” to midcentury England he’s taken dead aim at a traditional notion of gentlemanliness and a classic sense of Britishness. We’re introduced to this world not by Mr. Williams but a new hire named Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) in the Public Works department. It’s there where Mr. Williams quietly rules over a hushed corner of sprawling bureaucracy and “skyscrapers” of paperwork. On the train platform, some veteran colleagues hint at the severity Peter is walking into. After speaking a little too excitedly, one advises, “Not too much fun and laughter, rather like church.”
Much the same could be said of “Living,” more of a museum piece than its title suggests. Inside the Public Works office, Mr. Williams sits hunched over papers that either transfers to some other department or adds to the pile. “We can keep it here,” he says. “There’s no harm.”
It’s striking to hear Nighy’s voice so colorless and see his manner so stiff. His best performances are much more vibrant than his in “Living,” ironically enough. But Nighy has impressively drained himself of the wit and charm that usually flows naturally out of him, adding a tension to “Living.” We know that deep down there’s a more animated soul in Mr. Williams.
When Mr. Williams is diagnosed with a fatal cancer and given a few months to live, the way Hermanus and Ishiguro play the scene couldn’t be in starker contrast to Kurosawa. In “Ikiru,” Takashi Shimura’s Kanji Watanabe is told by a doctor that it’s just an ulcer, a lie that both he and we know to be a cover for stomach cancer. Despair is written all over Shimura’s face. In “Living,” the doctor gives it to him straight and unemotionally. “It’s never easy, this,” he says. “Quite,” replies Mr. Williams.
He is, as his young, livelier colleague Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) later describes her impression of him, “sort of dead but not dead.” With his life given an expiration date, Mr. Williams slowly begins to throw off his habits of propriety. A gentleman, he says a little regretfully, “is what I longed to be.”
In stolen moments with Margaret, he begins grasping his last bits of life. It’s here that you would expect most any modern telling of “Ikiru” to slide into sentimentality. The dryness of “Living,” to its credit, avoids those pitfalls, and, overall, has trimmed Kurosawa’s tale into a more focused 102 minutes. But there’s a stale emptiness to “Living” that doesn’t entirely dissipate in even its most moving scenes. When Mr. Williams devotes himself to seeing through a local playground — his first and last bid to make something lasting outside of the daily grind — the crescendo is again both affecting and disquieting. Because it’s told, after his death, through the gossipy chatter of colleagues, “Living” leaves you with a melancholy puzzlement: Why does it take death to allow anyone to truly live?
“Living,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some suggestive material and smoking. Running time: 102 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP