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Life actually

Life actually

Bill Nighy gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a 1950s bureaucrat facing death, in a brilliant remake of Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru

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 (1928); Liv Ullmann as the mute actress in Bergman’s Persona (1966); Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in the final shoot-out in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; and (one of my favourites) 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 (1980).

Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, 1980

To this list must now be added Bill Nighy in Living (selected cinemas, 4 November), a remake, directed by Oliver Hermanus and written by Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, 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. (For more on this, check out Noa Steimatsky’s The Face on Film.)

From the moment that we first see Mr Williams through the window of a train carriage – standing grimly on the platform, the “old man” barely deigning to acknowledge his junior colleagues – his countenance is the heart of the story. And precisely because Nighy can communicate so much with the slightest arch of an eyebrow, flare of a nostril or twitch of a lip, the effect of a full-blown smile – of which, in due course, we see plenty – is transformative.

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, taking in a series of dives and a burlesque show. Williams stands up and, in a moment of breathtaking (if incomplete) emotional release, sings the Scottish folk song ‘Oh, Rowan Tree’. He swaps his bowler hat for a jaunty trilby; again, in the tightly geared world of social codes and signals in which he operates, this alone is a striking act of mutiny.

Yet what his carousing with Sutherland tells him is that hedonism is not the same as living. Returning to London, he encounters one of his younger staff, Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), who needs a reference so she can leave and start a new job. 

Hitherto indifferent, he is intrigued and charmed by her natural joie de vivre – “your appetite for life” – and, to her astonishment, takes her for lunch at Fortnum’s. When she admits that her nickname for him is “Mr Zombie”, he is amused rather than angry, acknowledging the truth at the heart of the joke. 

They go to see Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and another of the many locks that define the self-imposed captivity of his life springs open. He confides in Margaret that he had aspired as a young man to be “a gentleman”, with all that entailed. But where has it got him?

Instead of dwelling on the past, however, Williams chooses to make the most of the time remaining to him, and, with a fanaticism that unnerves his colleagues, 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 redemption and the prospect of a fulfilled life, if only for a few months.

Love Actually, 2003

Aged 72, Nighy has not followed the traditional career arc of stardom. Long-admired for his restrained brilliance on stage and screen, he became a national treasure almost overnight as Billy Mack, the unforgettably twitchy washed-up pop star chasing a Christmas number one in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003). But in Living he delivers his best screen performance to date, and one that has certainly put him in the frame for an Oscar nomination.

In this respect, he is assisted by a terrific ensemble cast, by Hermanus’s adroit direction and – especially – by Ishiguro’s superb screenplay. In adapting Ikiru, the 2017 Nobel prize winner for literature was drawing upon one of the greatest movies of all time (a film inspired, in its turn, by Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich).

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, 1952

Seventy years after its release, Kurosawa’s film still transfixes the viewer from its opening shot of an X-ray of the stomach of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) to its closing scenes as the dying chief of the public liaison section at Tokyo City Hall sings blissfully to himself, sitting on a swing in the playground he has forced into being. 

At the start of Ikiru (or “Living”), this desiccated bureaucrat is, as the narrator observes, “just killing time, just drifting through life. He can’t really say he is really alive at all… He is like a corpse.” When Margaret’s counterpart in the original, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), tells Watanabe that she calls him “The Mummy”, he recognises that she is right about the way in which he has lived and worked. “No matter how hard I think,” he says. “I can’t remember anything I did in those thirty years.”

Like Mr WIlliams, Watanabe takes on the cause of a group of women seeking to turn a site full of stagnant water into a playground. His colleagues argue about his late-life change of character; one of them identifying the point of what Watanabe has done, which is to treat wasted time as a form of corruption. Ikiru, wrote the great film critic Roger Ebert, “is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead his or her life a little differently.” 

Japanese-born British writer and Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro

The connections and affinities between Japanese and English convention have been central to Ishiguro’s fiction; binding, say, An Artist of the Floating World (1986) to The Remains of the Day (1989). But his screenplay for Living is not simply a homage to Kurosawa. It also owes a debt to a strain in English fiction that celebrates the breach of middle-class rules: Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939), for instance, or, more recently, John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips (2000).

Its deeper nuance lies in the differences that Ishiguro detects between the Tokyo of 1952 and the London of 1953. The Japanese capital city is still struggling back to its feet after the catastrophe of the war. London, in contrast, is at the beginning of the Second Elizabethan Age: the coronation year bristles with intimations that, as Peter Hennessy puts it in Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties (2006), the dam is about to burst, approaching “a time when Bagehot’s ‘cake of custom’ was crumbling.” 

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, authors and performers of the revue, ‘Beyond the Fringe

Margaret’s generation would go on to dance to Elvis’s ‘That’s All Right’ (1954), read Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, watch Jimmy Porter rage in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), and – a few years later – rejoice at the satirical liberties taken by Beyond the Fringe. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm observed in 2002: “The Fifties are the crucial decade. For the first time you could feel things changing. Suez and the coming of rock-and-roll divide twentieth-century British history.”

In this sense, the rebellion of Mr Williams foreshadows the start of something immense and collective, as well as giving dignity to the end of one person’s life. It is a story that makes sense in time and space. But it is also a myth with universal application: the exquisite rendering of the eternal truth, so well expressed in Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, that “He not busy being born is busy dying.” In Living, in a face that thaws from a mask of living death to a smile of profound contentment, we see a man who somehow manages to do both.


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Here are this week’s recommendations.

Watch

My Policeman (select cinemas now; Prime Video, 4 November)

A coastal town in the 1990s: recovering stroke victim Patrick (Rupert Everett) moves into the home of long-married couple, Tom (Linus Roache) and Marion (Gina McKee), at the latter’s initiative. Tom is unhappy with his wife’s unilateral decision, and the clear intimacy between Marion and the stricken Patrick hints at a past romance.

Scroll back four decades to Brighton where we encounter the characters in their youth. Tom (Harry Styles) is a police officer, awkwardly courting schoolteacher Marion (Emma Corrin). Having met Patrick (David Dawson) as a witness in a case, Tom – who is giving Marion swimming lessons in return for guidance on how to “improve” himself – seeks to impress her by arranging for Patrick to give them a tour of the museum where he is a curator.

At first, it seems that the sophisticated and flamboyant Patrick will eclipse Tom with his erudition and wit. Director Michael Grandage leads us to suppose that Marion may fall for him – though she strongly denies this when asked by a friend.

In fact, it is Tom who has already fallen for Patrick and has secretly become his lover. Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Bethan Roberts, the story has deep roots in E.M. Forster’s famous ménage with the policeman Robert Buckingham and his wife May, who nursed the author after his final stroke in 1970. There are echoes, too, of the entangled relationship in Cabaret (1972) between Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles; Brian Roberts (Michael York); and Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).

Styles delivers his best screen performance to date, and Dawson and Corrin are as excellent as ever. The latter’s stage version of Orlando, also directed by Grandage, promises to be one of the theatrical highlights of the next twelve months (from 26 November; book tickets here).

The Crown, season five (Netflix, 9 November)

I wonder how Jonny Lee Miller, who made such an impact as Sick Boy in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, would have reacted in 1996 if told that he would go on to play the then prime minister, John Major, in a worldwide blockbuster series on the royal family?

Of course, Netflix did not exist 26 years ago, and the notion of streaming services delivering high-quality, high-budget drama via global broadband was scarcely conceivable. Yet by January 2020, more than 73 million households had watched The Crown – a total that must be much higher by now (Netflix tends to keep its data close to its techno-chest).

For season five, which covers the years 1991 to 1997 (but does not include the death of Diana), the series has its third cast: Imelda Staunton as the Queen; Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip; Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret; Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana; Dominic West as Prince Charles; and Olivia Williams as Camilla Parker Bowles.

This was indeed a turbulent period for the monarchy, embracing the annus horribilis (1992); the War of the Waleses; the Andrew Morton biography of Diana; the Martin Bashir interview (her) and the Jonathan Dimbleby documentary (him); and controversies over the royal finances. 

Released only two months after Her Late Majesty the Queen’s death, this season was bound to involve heightened sensitivities. Like the previous four, it embellishes, takes full advantage of artistic licence and remains, unapologetically, a dramatisation. 

Even so, Major has preemptively denounced The Crown as a “barrel-load of nonsense”, while Dame Judi Dench wrote to the Times last month, accusing the series of “crude sensationalism”.

All of which is, I suppose, fair comment. What is worrying, though, is the idea that we should, as a default position, assume that a drama on Netflix is a reliable historical source, or that we should even consider consulting it in search of historical knowledge in the first place. For more on this, see the Creative Sensemakers of 19 November 2020 and 30 June 2022; and don’t assume that “Nextflixstory” is the real thing. It doesn’t claim to be and it certainly shouldn’t be treated as such.

Nil By Mouth (selected cinemas, 4 November)

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, Nil By Mouth is an astonishing film, that draws career-best performances from Ray Winstone (Ray), Kathy Burke (Val), Jamie Foreman (Mark), and Charlie Creed-Miles (Billy). 

From the very first minutes, set in a sweaty, cavernous club, as we observe the aggressive family patriarch, Ray, frowning darkly at the barman when he is told that they have no ice, we are on edge. Winstone – who burst on to the British movie scene as Carling in the borstal drama, Scum (1979) – 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: “I’m 30 today, you know, and I feel so fucking old.”

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. 


Read

Cinema Speculation – Quentin Tarantino (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

The director of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) has pledged that his next movie will also be his last and that he will then retire from film-making 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 (see Creative Sensemaker, 1 July, 2021). In July, he launched his hugely entertaining Video Archive Podcast in which he and longtime collaborator Roger Avary review old VHS movies salvaged from the long-closed Video Archives rental store in Manhattan Beach, California, where they both once worked.

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. Aged nine, he was whisked off by his mother’s new boyfriend, a professional football player named Reggie who ”saw every Blaxploitation flick that came out” to a 1,400-seat theatre in Downtown LA where his “little face was the only white one in the audience”. 

The punters “fucking hated” the first part of the double bill, a social drama called The Bus Is Coming – but loved the main feature, Black Gunn, starring Jim Brown. As Tarantino puts it: “… frankly I’ve never been the same. To one degree or another I’ve spent my entire life since both attending movies and making them, trying to re-create the experience of watching a brand-new Jim Brown film, on a Saturday night, in a black cinema in 1972.”

Early exposure to seventies exploitation genres, as well as to the great movies of the New Hollywood, ensured that Tarantino was saturated in film culture by his teens. These essays are the reflections of a true movie geek, who grew up loving grindhouse flicks as much as European-influenced arthouse fare.

This means that he is able to explain the context in which Taxi Driver was released: one less interested in philosophical angst than in the genre of “Revengeamatics” spawned by Michael Winner’s original Death Wish (1974). He devotes an additional chapter to a counterfactual thought experiment in which Brian De Palma rather than Martin Scorsese directed the story of Travis Bickle – a role for which Jeff Bridges, rather than Robert De Niro, had originally been lined up. 

Tarantino is excellent, too, on the significance of Rocky (1974) and the centrality of Burt Reynolds to John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972): a movie that has not lost the capacity to shock, 50 years since its release. 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.

Bournville – Jonathan Coe (Viking)

Here comes volume four in Jonathan Coe’s planned “Unrest” quintet (the first three being Expo 58, The Rain Before It Falls and the wonderful Mr Wilder & Me). There are also connections with The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle and Middle England.

The novelist’s creative scope and cast of characters are too sprawling to make him the Anthony Powell de nos jours. But he is certainly the finest satirical writer presently addressing the “Condition of England” – or, more properly, of “Britain”.

Not for the first time, Coe is concerned both with the decay of our ties to place and to local culture, and with the terrible breach with Europe that culminated in Brexit. Bournville has as its geographical heart the village built in the 1890s by the Quaker Cadbury family: a community “not just founded upon, and devoted to, but actually dreamed into being by chocolate”.

The story begins in Germany at the start of the pandemic, as Lorna Simes, pursuing her musical ambitions in Leipzig, calls her grandmother Mary, back in Birmingham. Then it’s back to VE-Day, as the child Mary celebrates with her parents Sam and Doll; and then a series of national punctuation marks: the Queen’s Coronation in 1953; the World Cup Final in 1966; the Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969; his wedding to Diana in 1981; Diana’s funeral in 1997; and the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May 2020.

Mary’s husband Geoffrey has a German grandfather, which brings Britain’s relationship with Germany to the heart of the novel. Coe is especially good on the counter-intuitive fashion in which British hostility to the nation that had rebuilt itself after defeat in the war grew stronger and more vulgar, precisely when it ought to have been fading (“Two World Wars and one World Cup” chants one of Mary’s sons).

As Coe writes in his Author’s Note, the character of Mary is based closely upon his mother, Janet, who died in the pandemic. Not surprisingly, then, Bournville is full of anger, shared national distress and a sense of loss. But it is the novelist’s extraordinary capacity to find satire in the least expected places that keeps you turning the page.

Novelist as a Vocation – Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker, 8 November)

“[T]he world of the novelist is like a professional wrestling ring that welcomes anyone who feels like taking a crack at it….While entering the ring may be easy, however, remaining there for long is hard.” To survive is “a Herculean task. It’s fair to say not many are up to it.” 

So writes the celebrated Japanese novelist and essayist Haruki Murakami in this absorbing exploration – part memoir, part manual – on the life of the aspiring writer who gets into the wrestling ring of fiction and tries to stay there. 

Best known for Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, and IQ84 – some might also include A Wild Sheep Chase – he offers an account of the novelist’s experience that is often counter-intuitive. For instance: in Murakami’s view, fiction is a poor choice for an intellectual: “…anyone with a quick mind or an inordinately rich store of knowledge is unlikely to become a novelist. That is because the writing of a novel, or the telling of a story, is an activity that takes place at a slow pace – in low gear, so to speak.”

Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Ian McEwan (to name but three obvious authors) might take issue with that rule of thumb; though, to be fair to Murakami, he frequently points out that his observations are just that, and that creativity is never truly subject to rules, iron or otherwise.

Yet he is surely right to emphasise the role that sheer stamina plays in the life of a novelist. He himself turns out ten pages a day and sets great store by physical fitness. “You need to become robust and physically strong,” he writes. “And make your body your ally.” Indeed, he goes further: “once a writer puts on fat, it’s all over” That may be a little too severe, but his overall point is well-made. To stay in the ring, the lonely novelist must commit to a life of relentless rigour – “a very uncool enterprise” – with as much dedication as they chase the elusive spirits of inspiration.


Listen

The Greatest Thing I’ll Never Learn – Dylan

Declaring herself a “rockstar stuck in a pop star’s body”, 23-year-old Natasha Woods is on a sharp ascent, having toured with Ed Sheeran and powered her way through the festival season.

On this eight-track mixtape, she makes clear her debt to Aerosmith, Guns N’Roses and AC/DC. Yet – as often as she seems to be channelling Joan Jett – the affinities with Taylor Swift are no less clear; especially on ‘Blue’, which captures the despair of a relationship’s collapse: “Have you had enough? / Of being apart / And forcing a spark with someone to close the hole in your heart?”

Having built a core audience on TikTok during the pandemic, Dylan’s principal theme 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. Hence, the first lines of the opening track, ‘Girl of Your Dreams’: “I’ve been drinking in a shit club / Holy heaven, I’ve been messed up / And to tell you the truth / Every night that I do / I sit and drink about you”.

She’ll be a superstar a year from now. Tour details here – though tickets are already hard to come by.

some kind of peace – piano reworks – Ólafur Arnalds

Two years since the original version of this album was released, the Icelandic magus Ólafur Arnalds has assembled a remarkable collective of performers to reinterpret its music and breathe fresh life into its ambient, neoclassical aesthetic.

One of the reasons that it is rewarding to follow Arnalds’ creative progress is that he is so ready to experiment in his work (he launched his musical career as a heavy metal drummer and has made a name for himself as a composer of soundtracks – notably for ITV’s Broadchurch). On re:member (2018), he harnessed the power of AI and, in collaboration with Halldór Eldjárn, developed the Strauss software that connects two self-playing pianos algorithmically to a third played by Arnalds himself. 

On this album, he again delegates creative power – but this time to human beings. So the reworked version features American pianist Dustin O’Halloran on ‘Spiral’; South Korean performer Yiruma on ‘We Contain Multitudes’; British MC Alfa Mist on ‘Zero’; singer-songwriter, producer, composer and fellow-Icelander JFDR on ‘The Bottom Line’; and, on ‘Woven Song’, Polish singer and pianist Hania Rani, who plays the keyboard and hums hypnotically.

This is a collaboration of intense intimacy; by design, you can hear the keys of the piano squeaking and the pedals being used. The effect is mesmerising.

Revolver (Super Deluxe) – The Beatles

A great many fans of the Fab Four regard their seventh studio album, released in August 1966, as their finest. In his definitive Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (1994), the late Ian MacDonald argued that the LP “served to establish that [the band] had initiated a second pop revolution – one which, while galvanising their existing rivals and inspiring many new ones, left all of them far behind.”

This excellent boxed set – overseen by George Martin’s son, Giles – adds considerable depth to our knowledge of an album that was drenched in drug culture (especially on the ground-breaking track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’); is as memorable for the use of the sitar as of the Rickenbacker; and added ‘Eleanor Rigby’ to the list of greatest pop songs ever written. 

In particular – like Peter Jackson’s Emmy award- winning Disney+ series The Beatles: Get Back and the accompanying John Harris book (see Creative Sensemaker, 14 October 2021) – this Super Deluxe version of Revolver ushers the listener into the inner sanctum of the band’s creative process. This was iterative, painstaking and (clearly) extremely enjoyable.

So (for instance): ‘Yellow Submarine’ started life as a mournful lament sung by John Lennon (“In the place where I was born/ No one cared, no one cared”), mutating several times before it became Ringo Starr’s joyously psychedelic cartoon soundtrack. 

As they work on ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, Lennon and Paul McCartney collapse into giggles. It is fascinating to hear Martin walking McCartney through the orchestration of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, as they try out different arrangements. An early acoustic version of ‘Love You To’ is an X-ray of the song’s skeleton.

It remains amazing how young the four were and how far they had come in such a short time: John and Ringo were only 25, while George Harrison and Paul were still 23. As familiar as the music is, how and why four such distinctive and prodigious talents converged as they did, and with such seismic consequences, remains one of the magical mysteries of postwar culture.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

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Photographs courtesy Number 9 Films, Toho Company/Alamy, Working Title Films, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Getty Images, Netflix, Amazon Prime