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Living to Breaking Bad: the film and TV facing up to death

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Outside of Ikiru/Living, perhaps the most moving, near-euphorically tranquil death scene is that of Maude in Hal Ashby’s 1971cult classic Harold and Maude. In it, the character slips away on her 80th birthday after a final dance with her young lover Harold, saying she “couldn’t ask for a lovelier farewell”. In Chumbley’s experience, such bliss right at the end of life is possible, and she has seen “some really wonderful celebrations in people’s end-of-life experiences. I’ve seen people get married, I’ve seen people heal relationships. It can be a time where you see the very simplified heart of humanity when everything else is stripped away”. Maude’s life ending profoundly affects Harold; previously, between staging his own suicide and attending strangers’ funerals, he was fascinated by all things morbid but to shallow effect. But by bringing him into her final days, Maude teaches him what it truly means to live and die. For Chumbley, beyond the clinical and legal value of an “end-of-life plan”, it can also be an opportunity for human connection. “There’s affirmation when you appoint someone your power of attorney [for example]. It’s a chance to show someone they are loved by you, valued by you, and that this responsibility is because of the richness of your relationship.”

The idea of ​​looking inwards for fulfillment before it’s too late is at the core of what Ishiguro wanted to express in Living – along with the acknowledgment that you “can make your life full and worthwhile beyond a sense of external achievement that the world recognises. You can have a very humble small life, but you can make a supreme effort within the limitations of that life.” In this way, the ultimate accomplishment of Mr Williams with his playground is small but meaningful: he may not receive uproarious public recognition, but that is not the point. “There’s a very lonely sense of success and failure that we’ll be left with when we are really trying to assess whether our lives have been led well in just those terms,” as Ishiguro says.

And while truly contemplating our life and death may be a private interior act, watching films like Living can help us along the way. Part of what makes Living such a striking piece of work is that it comes to us at a time when death has been on everyone’s minds as a result of the pandemic. Yet, unlike Mr Williams’ personal epiphany, there has been no substantial collective re-evaluation of what really matters. As Critchley puts it, “we are in a process of really rapid forgetfulness with regard to the pandemic. So many people were lost, and now we’re back at it, and life is back to normal. Why don’t we remember? There’s a desperate tragedy to being a tightly formed narcissistic shell just ploughing through life when it’s actually joyful to remember and accept one’s position as someone who mourns and is vulnerable and open”. That is the joy that can be seen radiating from Bill Nighy’s character when, towards the film’s end, he sits on a swing in the playground he has helped get built while the snow falls. Like so many before him, in confronting his death, he has finally started Living.

Living is released in UK cinemas on 4 November and US cinemas on 23 December

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