‘Living’ Ending, Explained: How Does Williams’ Final Work Encourage His Colleagues?


The drama film “Living,” directed by Oliver Hermanus, looks clearly like an adaptation of a novel, which in fact, is the case. Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych” had been adapted to the screen by Akira Kurosawa in “Ikiru,” and Hermanus now loosely adapts Kurosawa’s work in his film. Set in England after the end of WWII, when the world has finally settled down again, the film follows Mr. Williams, an elderly man heading the Public Works department in the London City Council. Although there is nothing remarkable about “Living,” it is overall quite enjoyable and even successfully maintains a novelistic essence.

Spoilers Ahead

‘Living’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?

The film begins with a young man, Peter Wakeling, boarding a train on his very first day of work at the County Hall. After securing this new job in the Public Works department of the London City Council, Wakeling is excited to get started. But he is soon reminded of the very formal work etiquettes that were part of British society at the time by his immediate colleagues, Mr. Middleton, Mr. Rusbridger, and Mr. Hart. After boarding the train and being seated with his colleagues, Wakeling learns of their boss, the head of the Public Works Department, Mr. Rodney Williams. Even though Williams takes the same train to work, he never sits with his colleagues and prefers to travel by himself. As Wakeling gets introduced to the work and duties of his job, he realizes that the bureaucratic department, always burdened with demands from citizens and the government, often intentionally stows away work. One such instance is shown early on, when a group of three women comes to the Public Works department, asking to sanction the building of a small park for children in their neighborhood. It is evident that the women have been to the County Hall a number of times before with the same demand, and they have been turned away without any effect every time. In this instance, too, Williams manages to create a diversion by sending Wakeling with the women to a number of other departments, which all point to some other department in charge of getting the work done. At the end of a few circles all across the County Hall, Wakeling is told that the work indeed falls under the responsibility of the Public Works department. When he returns to his own office, Wakeling sees Mr. Williams having stowed away the file for the demand amidst a pile of other such files that have still not been worked on.

As Wakeling gets used to this life of a bureaucratic official, the film’s focus shifts to its main subject—Mr. Rodney Williams. The elderly head of the department is always prim and proper, extremely formal, and disciplined in his life and work. Often deemed arrogant and unfriendly, Williams does not really mix with anyone and has no friends whatsoever. He is a man of habit and schedule, living life in what looks like a very mechanical manner. The only people Williams tries to get close with are his son Michael and his daughter-in-law Fiona, but they are not very keen on providing the man with any company. All of this comes to a sudden halt and change, though, when Mr. Williams goes in for a medical check-up. The doctor grimly tells the man that he has only six to eight months left to live, owing to cancer that has been growing in his body. It is this revelation that makes Williams think about his life and reconsider his ways.

How Does Williams Change Himself After Learning Of His Cancer?

Once he learns about his terminal illness that is soon about to take away his life, Williams does not immediately change for the better. Rather, his first reaction is to take out almost half his life’s savings from the bank, buy exceptionally large numbers of sleeping pills, and attempt to take his own life in a seaside vacation town. Williams goes through with the first two steps but falls short of attempting the ultimate one when he meets a man named Sutherland. At a restaurant where Williams goes to have breakfast, he sees Sutherland complaining about his inability to get proper sleep at night as he has been suffering from insomnia. Asking to have a word with Sutherland, who is a writer by profession, Williams gives all the sleeping pills he had bought to the man, making it evident that he had been planning suicide. It is Sutherland who now decides to do the elderly man a favor, and he takes Williams out for the entire night, taking part in celebrations and revelry. This is the first change that Williams experiences; staying up late at night for fun and drinking have never been his thing. The man stuck to a schedule so strictly that his time for entertainment was fixed too—on Tuesday nights to go out and watch films. Having been unable to bring himself to take his own life, Williams now starts to let himself go and agrees with Sutherland’s claim that he had not been living life the best way before this. Along with mental and emotional change, there is a very literal change in the man that is presented in this scene, too, as Williams agrees to have his traditional bowler hat exchanged for a newer-style trilby hat.

After returning to London, Williams happens to meet with a younger colleague, Miss Margaret Harris, one day. Having been a worker at the Public Works department earlier, Margaret recently shifted jobs to take on the proposed role of assistant manager at a restaurant nearby. Ever since his last doctor’s appointment, Williams had not returned to work, which was highly irregular for the man. Despite being worried about his well-being, his colleagues did not inquire about the man, as they were sure that Williams would not like it. Meeting him on the streets, Margaret now tries to understand what is up with the man, but Williams instead takes the woman to lunch at a fancy restaurant. She had requested a letter of recommendation from her earlier boss, and this became Williams’ excuse for the lunch. As the two talk and discuss general matters, both of them realize that they are different from their working selves. Margaret understands that there is more to her ex-boss than the drab, scheduled life that he always lived, which had made her secretly name him Mr. Zombie. On the other hand, Williams sees the youthful charm and hope that Margaret is brimming with at all times, and he seems inspired by it. Gradually, the two of them go out some more times, just as friends, but societal perception takes things to be otherwise. At one point, Margaret herself is quite wary of being taken out to dinner by the elderly man, as she tells Williams that people might think that they are romantically involved. It is now that Williams finally comes clean about his illness after having talked about it only to Sutherland, whom he had spent time with for only a day. Margaret is saddened to hear of his cancer, and she understands the man’s wish to meet her, for Williams feels youthful only through the younger woman.

Williams’ relationship with his son and daughter-in-law does not sadly change from what it had been. There is an overall sense of neglect that Michael has for his father, even though Williams always wants to be close to him. Even though he was an extremely formal man, whom many waited to meet in the Council Hall, he would run to listen to Michael’s demands whenever he would call. But the father also realized that, with his daughter-in-law Fiona, Michael now had a different life of his own and that he should not meddle in it too much. Fiona is not the biggest supporter of her father-in-law, as she is confused about why the man does not want the family to move into a newer, more modern house. She keeps telling Michael to have a word with Williams about it, also questioning why Williams was holding all the money despite his wife having left a significant amount of money for all three members of the family. Fiona is then also told by a neighbor of theirs that Williams has been seen with a much younger woman, which, fearing a scandal, Fiona tells Michael about. Even though the son says that he will definitely confront his father about this, he ultimately cannot do so when the family sits down for dinner. Around this same time, Williams himself had been preparing to tell Michael about his terminal cancer and the fact that he now had only a few months to live. Even though he wanted to share this serious news with his son, Williams ultimately could not do it, for he felt the neglect that his son meted out for him in general and did not, therefore, want to burden Michael with the grief that was in his mind.

Williams did eventually return to work, though, after a month of absence, and it was here that another large change in him was noticed by everyone all around. Perhaps because he did not have much time to live and work, Williams was determined to ensure that the demand for building a children’s park, brought in by the three women, was fulfilled before his death. The overall understanding in this context seems to be that, like the other officials in the bureaucratic council, Williams, too, at one point, felt that such a construction was not important or urgent. Too busy with concerns that were more serious and official in nature, the man had never considered the amount of happiness a park would bring to the children and people of a neighborhood. Now realizing the importance of it, Williams considered it an urgent task, too, one that he wanted to get done before his death. The man, therefore, helped the woman through each of the departments, using various ways and methods to get his colleagues and even superiors to agree to the work and pass the file that would sanction the work to be done. The man was indeed able to succeed in his final project, as the children’s park was finally built. Soon after, though, Rodney Williams passes away from developing cancer.

‘Living’ Ending Explained: How Does Williams’ Final Work Encourage His Colleagues?

After Williams’ death, his son holds a funeral service to which all his colleagues are invited. The son, Michael, now realizes that his father must have known about his impending death, and he asks for confirmation of this from Margaret, knowing that his father was close to her. When the woman admits as much, Michael breaks down in tears, regretting the fact that he did not know and that he had not made any effort to know either. But Michael’s realization comes just too late, and all he can do at present is to be regretful. On the other hand, the colleagues from the Council Hall also wonder why Williams had not said anything about his illness to anyone. On their train back from the place, the four men now discuss how Williams had really gone out of his way to get the children’s park built and feel inspired by the man’s dedication. The four men, led by Peter Wakeling, now decide to always be as dedicated in their work as Williams had been, in a sort of tribute to their selfless senior colleague and boss. This decision does not stick, though, as most of them go back to their old habits and practices at the office, especially that of stacking up case files.

It is only Wakeling who keeps himself dedicated to work, and perhaps old Williams realized he would be the most dedicated too. Williams had left Wakeling a private letter in which he told the young man to visit the children’s park they had built whenever he would feel let down and tired. Wakeling does so one evening and meets with a local policeman who thanks him and his office for having built the park, which has brought much joy to the people of the neighborhood. The policeman then also talks of an incident with Mr. Williams, when the senior man had one day visited the park and sang while swinging all while it had been snowing. The police officer expresses his guilt for not having sent Williams home and therefore protecting him from the cold. He seems to think that the old man had passed from an illness that could have been caused by exposure to the cold weather. What he does not know is that Williams sincerely felt happiness and joy while doing so, and Wakeling tells the policeman about the man’s terminal illness. “Living” then ends with a scene of the local children merrily enjoying themselves at the park. Although they are surely not aware of who Rodney Williams was, Peter Wakeling definitely will remember the man and try to carry on his legacy. Wakeling also now starts a romantic relationship with his ex-colleague, Margaret Harris, who also had been very close to Williams during the short time that he lived his life to the fullest.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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