Tuesday, June 25, 2024

How Bill Nighy Became Hollywood’s Coolest Septuagenarian

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In Living, Bill Nighy plays an aging bureaucrat who has six months to live. He can’t bring himself to reveal this to the people he’s supposed to be close to, like his kids, confiding instead in nearly random strangers for whom he can invent himself anew in their eyes. One is a younger guy he gets drunk within a pub. Another is a young woman from his office to whom he may feel an unthreatening attraction, as everyone around him leaps to the wrong conclusions. A British version of Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa’s 70-year-old masterpiece Ikiru, as adapted by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who pitched the remake to Nighy one night when they found themselves in the same cab, Living is alternately moving and misbegotten, structurally awkward, and not unlike Brendan Fraser’s The Whale, succeeds best as a vehicle for the actor at its center.

There’s an advantage to finally becoming a star in your later years. Born working class in the English suburbs where it counts and trained as an actor in London where it also counts, Nighy didn’t register with many Americans until his washed-up rockers in 1998’s Still Crazy and then more prominently in 2003’s Love Actually, when he was well into his 50s. Now 73, he got his first starring role of any note when he was over 60. When you’ve played everything from hobbits and Nazi war criminals to mariner of doom Davy Jones and eternity’s oldest vampire, you know who you are—or you know as well as you ever will. Nighy always seemed to have the look and temperament of an obvious character actor until it became just as obvious he was more than that; sometimes stars are born—with that mix of looks, talent, charisma, and focus, was Tom Cruise ever going to be anything else?—but just as often, they’re forged of some alignment of curious coordinates. Nighy’s curious alignment finds his profile rising just in time to play dying men.

Nighy finds his profile rising just in time to play dying men.

Not quite like anyone else in movies, Nighy projects the diffidence of someone who maybe aspired to be not an actor but a musician, which isn’t the case, or a writer, which is. There’s a musicality in the movement of his long frame, not so much his walk as his stance, and he’s always shared a mutual attraction with conspicuously literate properties written by Tom Stoppard or David Hare. He speaks in the cadences of someone who is at once deliberate but slightly vexed, bewildered by something about existence that only he understands; it’s not hard to believe reports that he was once offered the role of Doctor Who. The stare of his eyes and the small smile that barely whispers to the surface of his face conveys a constant bemusement that characterizes not only his day-to-day attitude but a worldview until it erupts in rare rage such as in the climactic scene of 2011’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel when he confronts his unbearable wife and convinces you that his still waters run deep enough for that rage to have a source. His quintessential role is Johnny Worricker, the MI5 spy who came in out of the heat in the TV movie trilogy Page Eight, Turks & Caicos, and Salting the Battlefield, where the apparent amorality of his heroism disguised a moral fury that everyone persuaded themselves he didn’t have, to their own peril.

Counting down his days, so buttoned-up that he’s practically choking in his collar and tie, Nighy’s bureaucrat in Living suddenly has no time to make all the connections he never made, to make his life matter in a way it never has. Nighy brings to this dying role the mystique of a lifetime: a British inscrutability that’s always been marked by fleeting but unmistakable flashes of Keith Richards cool. The tight-lipped circumspection that marks so many major characters he has played is at its most laconic here, ever so precisely mapping the emotional no-man’s-land between collapse and redemption. The movie’s greatest triumph is that one of the most singular men in the movies turns out to be an everyman for the ages.

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