What is it about the British, hardly renowned these days for cinematic output, that they can confer late-onset stardom on hitherto supporting player?
To a list that now includes Olivia Coleman (The Favorite, 2018)), Lesley Manville (Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, 2022) and Jim Broadbent (The Duke, 2020) we can now add Bill Nighy best known for a rumbustious turn in The Boat That Rocked (2009).
And in a movie that is so slow, so bereft of any action, it goes in the polar opposite direction to current Hollywood offerings. Worse, it’s set in moribund England of 1953 and almost wilfully ignores that year’s great event, a hook that would undoubtedly have attracted The Crown crowd, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, whose funeral barely a couple of months back generated record global television audience.
The characters all exist in that worst of all English cliches, the pin-striped bowler-hatted stiff-upper-lip brigade who exist in a world so far removed from American enterprise and vigor that the hardest work they do is to avoid responsibility for any decision with an almost Brazil-type ability to pass the buck to another department.
And it is all done so beautifully. It’s not only the role of a lifetime for Nighy but his first leading role and he manages without once resorting to his trademark chuckle.
There’s no plot to speak off, just a gradual awareness by long-widowed civil servant Williams (Bill Nighy) that he has disappeared into a soulless existence, lacking any spark, easily matching the soubriquet “Mr Zombie” given by cheeky assistant Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood).
On receiving the news that he is dying of cancer, his reaction is to attach himself to livelier characters, Sutherland (Tom Burke) and Margaret, in the hope that by osmosis some of their joie de vivre will rub off, his attraction to the girl bordering on infatuation, which given the age gap, he luckily realises and pulls away from in time.
Unlike most downtrodden characters seeking redemption, he doesn’t immerse himself in a murder mystery, or race to someone’s rescue or confront the town villain, instead, almost secretly, devoting himself to building a playpark on behalf of downtrodden mothers who have no chance of beating the system on their own. In fact, there could not be a greater act of class rebellion for a middle-class Englishman than to connive on behalf of the lower classes to beat the Establishment.
His tiny action is against the background of a ruling middle- and upper-class who enjoy lives in the leafy suburbs far removed from the inner-city deprivation of London.
Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, 1993) – adapting Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) – has form exploring English emotional repression, with the most delicate of touches shedding a light on the incipient hierarchical pecking order. New recruit Wakeling (Alex Sharp) is kept in his place by the slightest touch of an umbrella. And in echoes of the inmates scurrying away from the approaching Nurse Rachet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Williams nearly hugs the wall, head bowed, hat in hand, to allow boss Sir James (Michael Cochrane) to pass in the corridor. Another colleague is “ashamed” to see Williams beg a superior to reconsider an adverse decision, as if this was not just a dishonorable action for Williams but a humiliation for himself to witness.
Only a hint here and there is required to draw other characters, William’s son’s harpie of a wife, and Williams’ colleagues not only forced to work at the same desk all day but crammed into the same (first-class) railway carriage for the journey home.
This could easily have gone down the more aggressive narrative route of Williams kicking up a stink and confronting those creating obstacles in other departments, there could have been stand-up rows, and defeat followed by celebration, but then that would have not been British. And while Hollywood might have revelled in the creation of another champion of the common man (or in this case, woman), instead director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie, 2019) has taken the much quieter approach, much to the film’s benefit.
There is only one directorial trick that will stop you in your tracks and a couple of lingering images, but the movie is all the better for the director restraining the impulse to go in more heavily.
Aimee Lou Woods easily makes the transition from television (Sex Education, 2019-2021) in an interesting part where her initial involvement as confidante turns into a more challenging role.
An industry, bewailing the post-pandemic absence of the older generation, will hopefully be sensible enough to accord this a platform release – word-of-mouth might even attract a younger audience – and come Oscar time Bill Nighy should be in with a shout.