One of the really annoying things about growing older – quite apart from the fact that my face looks more and more like a deflating balloon with a beard – is that you become preoccupied with questions like, “What does it mean to live a good life?” At nearly 55, there is considerably less time ahead of me than there is in the rear-view mirror, and I find that I’m sometimes consumed by a kind of panic about what, if anything, I’ll leave behind when I shuffle off. Like most of us, I don’t expect to have a building named after me, but it would be nice to be lying on my deathbed knowing that I had left the world a teeny, tiny bit better.
Oliver Hermanus’s first non–South African film, Living, starring Bill Nighy, explores this idea of legacy beautifully. Set in London in 1953, it’s adapted by the Nobel Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro from the 1952 film Ikiru, directed by another master, Akira Kurosawa, which in turn was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Regardless of time or culture, humans have certainly been thinking about this shit for a while.
Living sees Nighy playing the part of Mr Rodney Williams, and as I watched him navigate his soul-destroying job as a civil servant in postwar England, I was reminded of the T.S. Eliot line, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. Ishiguro’s screenplay (and it’s no surprise he wrote the book that the film Remains of the Day was based on) sets up immediately and deftly that this is a world of class and repression where being seen to do the right thing is considerably more important than actually doing anything. Essentially, Mr Williams, in his senior role at the Public Works Department, spends his days burying projects among endless stacks of paperwork (“where they can do no harm”), as do his subordinates. Far better to do this than trouble any of the other departments, which seem equally alarmed at the thought of taking any action. Nothing changes, nothing gets done. The workers’ lives are a particularly depressing version of Utopia meets Groundhog Day.
The only breaths of fresh air at Mr Williams’ office are Miss Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), a young woman on the verge of leaving in the hope of expanding her horizons, and new employee Mr Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) who is yet to have the spirit crushed out of him.
Mr Williams’ home life is no less stifling. His wife has died and he lives with his son, Michael (Barney Fishwick), and daughter-in-law, Fiona (Patsy Ferran), who treat him with slightly less warmth than polite acquaintances and clearly can’t wait to start a new life without him.
As dry and predictable as Mr Williams’ life is, as with many of us it takes something shocking – in this case a cancer diagnosis – to wake him up. There’s nothing like finding out precisely how little time you have left to make you suddenly think that there must be more to life than Uber Eats and Netflix (sorry, that might be me and not Bill Nighy). But when it’s time to make the most of it, what does that look like? What would any of us do if we discovered we only had mere months to live?
Humans seem to have a fairly limited palette when it comes to dealing with tragedy, and so Mr Williams’ initial response is to take himself off to a seaside resort where, with the help of local restless soul Mr Sutherland (the always excellent Tom Burke), he throws himself into a night of wine, women and song. While this is preferable to another kind of annihilation that he’d also been considering, it’s not the solution. Of course, living out his final days shuffling papers and kowtowing to his superiors isn’t either. He stops going into work and after a chance encounter with his former employee, Miss Harris, is drawn to her joie de vivre. This is 1950s London and even their innocent meetings are noticed and frowned upon by a neighbour and then family. But something has started to loosen in Mr Williams and he suddenly realises what he must do with his remaining days.
His goal is simple and small, but it does involve going back to his job and ruffling some feathers. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, his actions reverberate, even if some of the ripples only make others talk about change rather than actually doing it. The point, though, is that by giving his time to serving something greater than himself, he expands. Mr Williams touches other lives and gives meaning to his own.
I’m a sucker for a simple story told well that pulls you in and makes you care, but I was also struck by the economy of Living. There’s not a wasted word or look in this elegantly constructed film, where every element works together so convincingly to bring this little gem to life. I don’t doubt that both Hermanus and Ishiguro are in Kurosawa’s debt, but the direction and writing here are confident and spare, while Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography, with its sepia tones and affecting use of light, and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s melancholy soundtrack both support the themes of memory and loss that permeate the film. There is not a bad performance, but Nighy’s turn particularly contributes to Living’s capacity to say so much with so little. It’s true that on some level very little actually “happens” in Living, but what more could you want from a movie than to be totally absorbed and then in its afterglow be left to consider the profound?
Laura Poitras’s documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a very different beast to Living, but it too is concerned with death and the question of legacy. The film recounts artist and activist Nan Goldin’s campaign to get the Sackler family name removed from the various museums and galleries to which the billionaires gave financial support. The Sacklers are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for producing and marketing OxyContin, the opioid that has killed half a million Americans and destroyed who knows how many lives across the globe. Despite Purdue’s bankruptcy settlement last year, the Sacklers have remained largely financially unscathed. While they have been forced to quit the drug business, they have received a lifetime immunity from civil liability over their role in the opioid crisis.
Goldin, having dealt with her own addiction to “oxy”, established the group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to hold the Sacklers to account and to advocate for harm reduction. Inspired by the protest group Act Up, P.A.I.N. conducted a series of disruptions in 2018–19, everywhere from the Guggenheim to the Louvre, to force the hands of those who have accepted the Sackler’s filthy lucre. And what they achieve is impressive. The demonstrations were filmed and it’s obvious that for Goldin, who’s always used her life in her work, they were bound to be turned into art themselves.
I’m embarrassed to say that outside of being familiar with her name, I knew very little about Goldin and I’m grateful that’s no longer the case. She’s a gripping subject, and she took a huge risk by jeopardising her own standing with these institutions (some of which have her work in their permanent collections) by revealing their hypocrisy. Between footage of the various protests, we learn a great deal about her childhood and how it impacted her art and life. The suicide of her gay sister, Barbara, when Goldin was only 11, has cast a long shadow and ensured that themes of death, sexuality and stigma have dominated her photographs.
The film details her plight as a struggling female artist but it also shows the groundbreaking nature of her work capturing the New York LGBTIQ community that accepted her. Goldin wasn’t looking in at these people, she was one of them, and she took photos of subjects she considered to be part of her “family”. Her images became even more urgent when they later showed this same world being ravaged by addictions and particularly by the AIDS crisis.
I think it’s entirely right that her artworks, such as “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, “The Other Side”, “Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls” and “Memory Lost”, are used as pillars in the documentary. But while it’s valuable to learn about how her history and artworks intersect, I started to wonder if it were more co-producer Goldin’s vision than that of the Academy Award–winning Poitras (Goldin even had a hand in the terrific soundtrack, suggesting not only songs but the use of experimental NYC group Soundwalk Collective). At least, that’s my explanation for why some of the many different strands of the artist’s life didn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor. I was surprised that the film was 113 minutes because it felt longer, and I put this down to a lack of narrative drive.
I could have happily watched a whole documentary just on Nan Goldin’s family, or her time living with drag queens in Boston in the ’70s, or her association with early John Waters “it girl” Cookie Mueller, or, of course, her battle with the Sacklers and the formation of the P.A.I.N. activist group. I can see the justification for including all of it, but the film suffers from trying to do too much. The very fact that Goldin is an artist who works with ideas of loss and pain, and that she went on to leverage her standing in the art world because of the loss and pain caused by the Sacklers – which they, in turn, parlayed into donations to institutions that bear their name while showing the works of people such as Goldin – seems like more than enough subject matter without those moments where I found my mind wandering because I was thinking, Oh look, it’s drag queen Divine!
In the end, though, it does seem fitting that Goldin’s legacy of protest, art and inclusion is worth so much more than the billions the Sacklers have accumulated and hung on to by selling their souls. Perhaps, like Mr Williams, one of the reasons Goldin will be remembered is because of the risks she took to help other people. Now, that’s a good life.
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