Bill Nighy has appeared onscreen since the late 1970s, but it was his role as an aging pop star in 2003's Love Actually that made him a favorite among audiences. Since then, he's worked consistently across genres, appearing in films as diverse as Hot Fuzz, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, and Pokemon Detective Pikachu. Now he gives the performance of his career in Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic Ikiru. This powerful turn could spin his career off in all new directions.

The story is set in 1950s London. Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a civil servant known among his humorless colleagues in the Public Works department as being particularly humorless. He is a man of habit, coming into work each day, doing his job with efficiency and an utter lack of passion, then going home. He speaks in a monotone, rarely, if ever, expressing much interest in the people around him. The office's new hire, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), finds him oddly fascinating, as well as an example of what he never wants to become.

Mr. Williams has reason to be dour. He's got terminal cancer. The only person he confides this to is Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), a former secretary he runs into after encountering her at her new restaurant job. An unlikely bond forms between them, leading him to think about what kind of legacy he'll leave behind after he dies. When you spend most of your adult life pushing papers, he wonders, what are you really contributing to society? Eventually, Mr. Williams finds something that will allow him to leave a tiny mark on the world, and he enlists Peter in helping him accomplish it.

Nighy has an incredibly difficult task here – playing a man who is intensely bottled up, yet allowing us to sense all the feelings he keeps inside. The actor pulls it off magnificently. Without ever breaking the dam of Mr. Williams' emotions, he conveys great pain, fear, and longing, while simultaneously indicating how the character's icy façade is meant to conceal those things. Scenes he shares with the excellent Wood have a tenderness we do not expect having spent a half-hour or so with this man. Watching how Nighy allows Mr. Williams' guard to drop in her presence is touching.

On a lighter note, the film has fun depicting the soul-killing work of bureaucracy. In an especially witty sequence, Peter is assigned to help a group of women navigate the red tape involved in trying to get a small park erected in their neighborhood, only to get wrapped up in that red tape himself. The movie's look is an additional pleasure, with the Public Works office throwing off an amusingly drab, boring vibe. It makes the cubicles of Office Space look like Pandora from Avatar.

Because Living is about a muted man, the film, by nature, has to be muted in its tone. Despite Nighy's superb work, this wasn't a picture that made me feel a whole lot. Director Oliver Hermanus doesn't quite convey the urgency the story's hero faces in wanting to leave a piece of himself behind. Telling where the plot will go is easy, even if you haven't seen Ikiru. Mr. Williams' plan is also a bit rushed-through. Devoting more time to showing him working on it would have given the movie a much bigger punch at the end. Nevertheless, there's value in seeing a good actor absolutely nail a complex role. Bill Nighy embodies this character to perfection, so getting the opportunity to savor his performance is reason enough to check out the movie.

out of four

Living is rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.