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Character Breakdown: ‘Living’ Explores How a Terminal Man Finds the Meaning of His Life

February 3, 2023
4 min read time

What would it take for you to change your life? It’s often the basis for a plot for film and TV shows: a protagonist receives grim news about their health and becomes determined to alter how they live their life. Impending death = motivation. Living, which has been nominated for two Academy Awards, asks that question as the lead character Williams finds out he has six months to live and chooses to “live” before he dies.

Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, inspired by the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, Living follows Williams, a man in 1950s England attempting to figure out who he is and how he wants to be remembered with the limited time he has left.

Played by Bill Nighy, Williams is a quiet, humorless and complex character working in the bureaucratic world of England’s Public Works department. What goes into turning Williams into a character that people want to follow?

Williams at Work

Williams and his colleagues work quietly in a cramped room. There is little chit-chat. Conversations are brief, straight-to-the-point sentences. Williams leads this team and maintains a certain order to the department and respect from his people. It’s clear that the men who enter this department will likely spend their lives working on the joyless, mundane tasks and rising up in the ranks only as those in seniority retire – essentially becoming the same person Williams has become.

The other characters in this room are a reflection of who Williams was and destined to become. The film opens on a new employee in the department, Wakeling (Alex Sharp) who is hopeful and chatty. He gets on a train with his new colleagues and heads into town. These other characters are progressively older than he and are closer to becoming who Williams is.

The exception is Ms. Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) who wants a reference from Williams for a new job. It’s her ticket into something different and shows that his words hold a certain amount of weight.

In the office, Williams doesn’t seem happy or upset, accomplished or regretful, or anything other than just someone spending their life at an unfulfilling job.

William’s Personal Life

The first real look we get of Williams in his personal life is the evening he receives his diagnosis. He sits quietly in the darkness of his living room as his son, Michael (Barney Fishwick) and Michael’s wife, Fiona (Patsy Ferran), enter – they share the house with Williams. They don’t see him in the house and talk poorly of the patriarch until they discover him in a room nearby.

There is no confrontation though. In fact, they don’t even look at each other. It’s apparent that Williams wants to tell Michael about his terminal illness but they have a deep-seeded communication problem and he doesn’t tell him.

When Williams goes to a resort town attempting to find peace and the opportunity to live a little, h confesses to a man he meets that he doesn’t know how to have fun; a key moment that Williams isn’t sure how to make the most out of his final days.

There are several scenes throughout the movie that give us a glimpse into the personal life of Williams. He has no friends and struggles with personal relationships. He’s a nice guy but not much of a conversationalist and avoids any attempts to be part of any dialogue. For a main character, it’s surprising how little the audience knows about Williams until he starts opening up with a colleague he ends up confiding in.

When you’re creating characters, Living teaches that characters can carry the burden of the life they didn’t lead, how this weighs down on the person they are, and eventually becomes a catalyst of their change. A classic example comes from the Oscar-winning role of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront who famously says, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum.”

How the Supporting Characters Define Williams

Oftentimes, an audience learns who the main character of a movie is by the way they treat the people around them. But, for the most part in Living, Williams treats everyone the same and never shares his thoughts about anyone.

As a character, Williams, and the audience, learns about himself through others. From the first scene of the film with his colleagues at the train station to Michael and Fiona speaking behind his back and then an establishing a friendship with Ms. Harris, who plays the mirror for Williams, the audience learns about the perception of Williams through the supporting characters.

Who is Williams in the Screenplay?

Characters are defined by their actions, but they have to make an appearance in the screenplay somehow. This is how the Oscar-nominated screenplay introduced the Oscar-nominated role of Williams:

Williams is tall, angular, elegant, early 60s. Dressed immaculately in the commuters’ uniform.

It’s short and subtle, leaving the reader to imagine what this character looks like based on the description and showing his personality through his, and the supporting characters’, actions and dialogue.

Who the Character Becomes

Williams’ life is ending soon. This ticking clock provides motivation for the character to change. In Living, Williams doesn’t know how to. His arc is figuring out how he can become the person he wants to be, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

His change though is subtle and makes sense to who the character is. After Williams receives his diagnosis, he heads to the resort town and spends a night partying with a stranger. How often have we seen this though: the terminal diagnosis, the decision to live it up in the final days and making things right with family.

Living shows an alternative. The filmmakers don’t have Williams spending another night drinking because it’s not right for his character, but they had to show him at least try. How the final part of Williams’ life plays out makes sense for who the character is.

Living takes a look at different ways of how a quiet, serious and seemingly joyless man finds ways of experiencing “living” and how his small actions change the lives of those around him.

Living has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor, and is currently playing in theaters.

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