All hail the great Bill Nighy, who has been nominated for Best Actor in the 2023 Academy Awards for his performance in Living.

And rightly so! Living is a lovely showcase for Nighy’s singular screen presence. It’s also a reverent — too reverent, actually — homage to Ikiru that, running almost 40 minutes shorter than Akira Kurosawa’s 1956 masterpiece, moves through the phases of its protagonist’s epiphanic redemption too quickly. It’s almost as if a British film professor, underestimating his young film students, decided to produce an abbreviated remake of his favorite classic of post-war Japanese cinema and convert it to his students’ own language (to spare them the subtitles), cut its duration by a third (to avoid testing their patience), and make the point of each episode extra-clear (so they could easily explain what it means in their essays).

As a result, the characters here all seem one-note, the sort of cartoonish British stereotypes we encounter in a lot of BBC dramas that seem custom-made to reinforce American assumptions, in spite of the fact that they seem to be living in a particularly beautiful period recreation of post-war England.

Bill Nighy is Mr. Watanabe… I mean, Mr. Williams in this adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

If you know Ikiru, you don’t need a synopsis: It’s the same story — just strangely simplified. Basically, Mr. Williams (Nighy) is our stand-in for Mr. Watanabe in Kurosawa’s story — a tight-lipped, cadaverous bureaucrat overseeing an office of younger men cut from the same dull and dusty cloth. As the film opens, we’re prepared by the grim-faced staff of the Office of Public Works to meet their apparently intimidating and difficult boss. Williams makes a grand entrance, sure enough, but then right away any sense of his severity seems to dissolve. He’s diagnosed with a terminal illness and, in no time at all, throws himself (as much as a slow, soft-spoken, elderly gentleman like himself can) into a series of awkward lunges toward enjoying his last days, almost as if he heard David Bowie’s “Cygnet Committee” and was invigorated by the song’s climactic refrain of “I want to live! I want to live!

Before long, as always tends to happen in movies like this (including Groundhog Day, for example), Mr. Williams will realize that indulgence has its pleasures, but human kindness is the true path to joy. And all the while, the Public Works gang — stuffier than the circle of spies called The Circus in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and all of them obvious variations on the Williams template — get lots of opportunities to take their turn at blinking in bewilderment as their famously morose superior officer starts acting up.

I mean… who could be offended by such a redemption arc? It’s a formula that will always work on at least some people in the audience. And I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy it — I did. Very much. Cast Bill Nighy as the lead in just about anything, and Anne and I will both be there for it. He’s one of our favorites. We savored our rare date night at the movies and we talked all the way home about the composition of our favorite shots in cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay’s marvelous work. (There’s one close-up of Nighy under an umbrella where he turns suddenly, and the suddenly flourish of light and shadow made me audibly gasp.) The screenplay — adapted by the great novelist Kazuo Ishiguro! — is full of warm, poignant human moments. The classical score, predominantly piano, sounds great in a theater, reminding me of how I swooned for Jonny Greenwood’s score for Phantom Thread sitting in the same theater a few years ago. (But did they really need to reach for the familiar and reliably dramatic strains of “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” played in its entirety for the finale?! I mean, that’s almost like cueing up Pachelbel’s Canon. It seems… lazy.)

My apologies to director Oliver Hermanus, who obviously crafted this out of deep love for what many think to be Kurosawa’s crowning achievement. But I just did not feel particularly invested in Mr. Williams’ attempts to break out of his zombie-state the way I always feel invested in Mr. Watanabe’s last days. Williams’ transformation seems so abrupt here: One moment he’s sitting sullenly in a dark room (as only Nighy can), as if posing for a variety of moody profile shots, and blinking in bewilderment (Nighy has always been very, very good at blinking); the next he’s partying with the worldly Sutherland (Tom Burke being very Tom Burke and then disappearing too quickly); the next he’s basking in the generous attention of a young woman (a softly glowing Aimee Lou Wood); and then he’s suddenly waxing eloquently about his mistakes, and charging into this narrative’s famous crescendo of human kindness. I sat there thinking, “I’m going to get back to the car before my two-hour parking limit is up after all!”

I feel like a horrible person suggesting that Living is anything less than a minor miracle. But the trailer made me excited to see an inventive variation on one of my favorite films, and hopeful that I would see Bill Nighy in his defining performance, one that might even win him an Oscar, which would seem right and good at this stage of his career.

Instead, the movie just felt like a longer version of the trailer, making no surprising deviations from its source material. And I found myself wanting to revisit Ikiru as soon as possible to get a better sense of why Kurosawa’s film is so much more profoundly satisfying, and why this one feels so slight.