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"Living" and Tiny Changes

Spoilers ahead for Oliver Hermanus’ Living

There is a song by the Scottish band, Frightened Rabbit, called “Head Rolls Off”; and when that band’s lead singer, Scott Hutchison, passed away in 2018, his family started a charity organization, called Tiny Changes, that took its name and guiding ethos from part of that song. The organization's focus is youth mental wellness particularly geared toward suicide prevention, and the relevant part of the song goes:

When it's all gone

Something carries on

And it's not morbid at all

Just that nature's had enough of you

When my blood stops

Someone else's will thaw

When my head rolls off

Someone else's will turn

And while I'm alive, I'll make tiny changes to earth

I mention all of this here because I couldn’t get this song out of my head when I left the theater after watching Living, the recent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Ikiru. This adaptation is set in 1950s post-war London, from a screenplay by acclaimed novelist and screenwriter, Kazuo Ishiguro. In Living, Bill Nighy plays an older civil servant, named Rodney Williams, who is struggling to come to terms with having been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Prior to receiving his diagnosis, Mr. Williams was just a widower, living in his home with his son and daughter-in-law, going to a job each day where he was respected by his subordinates as a serious-minded, if perhaps overly fastidious, boss. Known for his reliability and punctuality, Mr. Williams becomes briefly unmoored by the news of his diagnosis, before ultimately finding something worth devoting himself to.

In some sense, given his age and the loss of his wife, Mr. Williams was already just killing time with his life, unconsciously waiting to die when he was diagnosed; and part of the reason he winds up not sharing his diagnosis with his son and daughter-in-law is that he intuits from things overheard that they are largely waiting for him to die as well, already making plans based on the inheritance they expect to receive. He can only intuit this, though, as what underlies their relationship with one another is a polite lack of substantive communication. This is a family that can reliably gather together each night for dinner, exchanging pleasantries over passed dishes, while never viewing one another as someone that could be confided in with anything honest or hard.

So, largely isolated, Mr. Williams goes through a number of stages trying to process his situation. He briefly entertains suicide before giving his sleeping pills to a man he meets named, Sutherland, a somewhat bohemian writer he overhears complaining of insomnia. While making the offer, Mr. Williams confides his diagnosis to Sutherland and admits that after deciding that suicide wasn’t for him, he had been taken by the idea that he might seize the day, and live out his remaining days with some gusto, before realizing that he had largely forgotten how to live. Sutherland takes some pity on Mr. Williams and brings him out for a drunken night on the town, and Mr. Williams finds some momentary joy in that new experience, but also some melancholy, and this proves not to be the answer that he needs.

Mr. Williams next tries to find some life in the company of a young woman that had recently worked for him, Ms. Harris, who had just left his office for a new job at a restaurant nearby. Mr. Williams also confides his diagnosis in her, letting Ms. Harris know that there was nothing untoward he felt towards her, but that he hoped he might be able to learn something from her about the joy and energy with which she seems to go about her life. Mr. Williams and Ms. Harris are able to form some kind of bond over this, but this also isn’t quite the answer he needs for what ails him, either. What he needs to do is somehow find his own joy and purpose if there’s to be any hope of it being a lasting feeling.

Mr. Williams does find something. In a sense, he throws himself into his work, but a facet of his work he had long forgotten. Picking up a thread from earlier in the film about a group of mothers who had visited his office in the hopes of getting the government to turn a bombed-out vacant lot into a community park, before being sent on their way, on an endless bureaucratic wild goose chase, bouncing from department to department, finding nobody willing to take responsibility as being who they needed to talk to in order to get the project started; And what Mr. Williams remembers is that it is within his authority in his job to actually help people like this, to shepherd along projects that can make some small lasting changes in people’s lives. Like a 1950s Leslie Knope, Mr. Williams decides to make it his purpose to make this park happen.

The film makes a wild choice here, one that particularly benefits from seeing this film in a theater where you can’t readily check how much more time is left in the story. We get a sequence of a seemingly rejuvenated Mr. Williams, leading the men from the office out into the rain to see in person the lot that the mothers have been talking about. Despite the heavy rain, there is a happy brightness to this moment, but we make a fairly hard cut from Mr. Williams stepping out into the rain, to the church where his funeral service is taking place.

In the moment, you can believe that this could be the end of the film, and ultimately his story was always going to be how his story had to end. It’s abrupt, but almost no matter what happens after Mr. Williams steps out into the rain, he’s better off than where we began his story. He could have been hit by a bus a moment later, but he still would have died possessing some purpose and joy. We do get quite a bit more than this though.

Mr. Williams has died, but what we get for the rest of the film is a mix of flashbacks of people’s remembrances of his final days, along with the lessons they take of how they might apply Mr. Williams’s example to their own lives. We get to see the building of the park, and the children playing in it. We get to hear from mothers and other people in the community who had grown fond of Mr. Williams because of what he was doing. We get to hear the men from his office piecing together that Mr. Williams knew he was dying, that it had sparked this sudden change, and how that ought to guide them in how they run the department in his absence. We also get to see a burgeoning relationship between Ms. Harris and one of the young men from the office. Though Mr. Williams is now gone, we do get to see that something carries on.

With the ending structured this way, it acknowledges, but decenters, Mr. Williams’s death; while emphasizing the important part about those final months, that he had found a joyful purpose, and that, as the song said, while he was alive he made tiny changes to Earth.


Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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