This is a hybrid column: presenting one full review of a fine current release and a batch of intriguing options for the months ahead. First, the remake of a Japanese classic into a British gem:
One of the great exemplars of 20th century Japanese cinema is “Ikiru” (to live), directed and co-written by the master Akira Kurosawa in 1952. The tale features a bureaucratic paper-pusher mired in a barren government job until he belatedly comes to life and takes action on a positive project. With the lead played by the great Takashi Shimura, the film won international honors and represented a change from Kurosawa’s usual action pictures.
After long marinating, that drama has finally been adapted for an English-language audience and set in 1950’s London by the Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (author of “Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go”, inter alia). The adaptation stays quite true to the spirit of the Japanese original, with appropriate English touches and equivalents, but principally through a superb reincarnation of the lonely bureaucrat by Bill Nighy (now in theaters, the film is rated “PG-13” and runs 142 mins.).
The film opens with a callow new employee, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), beginning his new job at the London Public Works Department, where he is warned immediately about the unknowable Mr. Williams (Nighy), a paragon of inaction in their unit, an exemplar of do-nothing. Williams is a recent widower, but has a son (Barney Fishwick) and a daughter-in-law, but they are wholly wound up in their own lives. A visit to his doctor brings bad news: he has but six months to live from end-stage cancer.
Alone in a pub, he tells a waitress about his fate, a conversation overheard by man-about-town Sutherland (Tom Burke), who urges him to undertake a beachside pub crawl with him. But the binge night doesn’t take. He tries to clumsily charm an ambitious young woman from his own office, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), but that too doesn’t go any farther than halting, uneasy conversations.
His grim diagnosis, however, somehow triggers Williams to action. Knowing his time is short, he first abruptly abandons his office and goes on a private seaside holiday, but most importantly, he decides to change his life and speed up a long-delayed community request to build a small neighborhood park.
Through these vagaries, Williams is ever the taciturn stork in the black suit, slow to speak and to reveal his emotions. Tentative and timid, he opens up only in his final weeks when he finally has a job to do by standing up to his bureaucracy.
Such a role is catnip for Nighy (73), often a flinty figure in British films who has made a career of such men. In over some 70 films since the 1980’s, his portraits of Brit restraint have graced films like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” (2012), “Pride,” (2014), “The Bookshop,” (2017), and “Emma” (2019), as well as “”Living.,” while his comedic chops were acclaimed as a has-been rock singer in “Love Actually” (2002), the film that introduced him to a world-wide audience.
Directed with taste and acumen by Oliver Hermanus (a South African helmsman), and outlined beautifully in Ishiguro’s delicate and sensitive script, “Living” is much aided by a series of classy production elements in period London, exhibiting luminous cinematography, production design, and music. Like its Japanese model, “Living” caps its narrative with a poignant remembrance of a fellow on a swing in a snowfall that redeems this man of no importance.
Now, a miscellaneous collection of upcoming pictures coming to movie houses in the next few months:
Freedom’s Path – “Freedom’s Path” is a Civil War story focusing principally around free, autonomous Black Americans living on the fringes of the that war. It opens telling the dilemma of a white Union soldier, William (Gerran Howell) who runs away from his first battle, pretending he is dead. He is discovered by a young Black man, Kitch (RJ Cyler) and aided back to health by a freed Black community. When the war impinges on that community, a gang of slave hunters occupies their refuge. The hunters capture and torture Kitch as William, hidden, watches his friend being lynched, and decides he must intervene. The film’s writer/director, Brett Smith, devoted 12 years to making “Freedom’s Path.” (February 3, 2023)
Marlowe – This is a 2022 American neo-noir crime thriller based on a 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. Directed by Neil Jordan and written by William Monahan, it stars Liam Neeson as Raymond Chandler‘s brooding private detective Philip Marlowe. It takes place in 1939 Los Angeles, when gumshoe Marlowe is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress. The film, which also stars Diane Kruger and Jessica Lange, premiered at the 70th San Sebastián Sebastian International Film Festival in September of last year. Neeson, who has toggled between dramatic roles and action heroes in the last several years, here mixes his two genres but this time in a period piece. (February 3, 2023)
Radiant Girl – It’s 1942 in Paris and 19-year old Irene (Rebecca Marder) is an aspiring actress living the good life. Her family watches her discover friends, new love, and a passion for the theater, all the while without her realizing that time is running out for her and her Jewish family. Prominent French actress Sandrine Kiberlain makes her directorial debut with this coming-of-age drama set in Nazi-occupied France. Advance reviews from Europe indicate that this film is “more poignant and subtle than most Holocaust pictures,” and it is by turns “enchanting and devastating, anchored by a star-making lead performance” from Marder, a fresh new talent. (February 17, 2023)
Chevalier – A biographical drama, directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, based on the life of the titular French-Caribbean musician Joseph Bologne, “Chevalier de Saint-Georges,” played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.. “Chevalier” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival last September. The rise and resurgence of Bologne, a noted violinist and composer (known as “the Black Mozart”), came through his musical talent, but a complicated love life and the racism of the French ancien regime leads to a falling out with Marie Antoinette, and Bologne realizes that things must change. (April 7, 2023)
The Little Mermaid — The latest in the Disney Studios’ live-action remakes of its classic animated movies. It tells the familiar tale of Ariel (Halle Bailey) the youngest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the ruler of the underwater kingdom Atlantica. Ariel, drawn to the world of humans, falls in love with the handsome Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) after saving him from a shipwreck, and resolves to meet him in the wider world. Her quest brings her in conflict with her father and into the clutches of the scheming sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). (May 26, 2023)
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of the book “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com