‘Living’ Ending, Explained: What Purpose Does The Playground Serve?

Bill Nighy has received his first Academy Award nomination, and for good reason too. His 2022 drama film is based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film, “Ikiru.” The word ‘living’ can mean many different things to people. Most predominantly, ‘to be alive’ is how we’d explain it, but what does that mean exactly? That is the question “Living” seeks to answer. Even with a 71-year time jump, the relevance of the story remains today. “Living” transports one into post-World War II England through the lens of an old and diligent bureaucrat. Without a doubt, Bill Nighy carries this entire film with his impeccable facial expressions and sincere demeanor. What is impressive is that even if someone with no cultural, social, or personal engagement with this subject matter watches this film, it happens to hit the mark. There are many ways to deal with a ticking clock looming over your head, and Nighy’s Mr. Rodney Williams explores this thought in “Living.” 


Spoilers Ahead

Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Living’?

Peter Wakeling has just begun his career as a civil servant. He greets his colleagues, who do not appreciate his sense of humor, and awaits his long days at work on the train there. Peter looks forward to meeting and working with his disciplined and highly regarded boss, Mr. Rodney Williams. Mr. Williams, on the other hand, is pleasant but distant from his subordinates. After working for many years together, they don’t seem to have any kind of camaraderie. Uncharacteristically, Mr. Williams leaves work early on Wakeling’s first day. Mr. Williams learns he is terminally ill and has about six or, at best, nine months to live. In a discombobulated state, he withdraws his savings and heads to a bistro to figure out how he can live the rest of his days. There he overhears a bohemian poet who happens to be on the lookout for sleeping pills. Politely, the old man wonders if he can have a word with the poet in private. Upon agreeing, Mr. Williams apologizes for his intrusion but proceeds to shockingly reveal not one but four full bottles of pills. The stranger gets the sense of dread this implies but manages to help him a little after hearing out Mr. Williams’s concerns. This is the beginning of Mr. Williams’ new life journey.


Devastatingly, Mr. Williams is unable to tell his son Michael about his diagnosis because he believes he has his own concerns and now has no time for his father. In the most heartbreaking manner, Mr. Williams recalls the joyous moments he spent with his dear son until he didn’t anymore. Michael does care about his father; he is just estranged from him now that he has a wife and other concerns regarding his own ‘family.’ On his wandering way, Mr. Williams happens upon Miss Harris. Miss Harris is an employee who works in Mr. Williams’s department. She is the only person who is humorously welcoming to Wakeling when he joins work. It seems this is because she’s joyfully about to quit work. Bureaucracy is apparently not for everyone. Mr. Williams happens to find respite from his concerns in the presence of Miss Harris. He thinks perhaps she will be able to teach him how to be happy himself. Their bond is quite beautifully forged by Mr. Williams writing her a recommendation letter for the new job she’s so excited to join. Over time, she is the only person he’s able to tell about his illness, and that too because she worries about the gossip their appearance may stir. The neighborhood quidnunc happens to see Mr. Williams and Miss Harris and forms her own opinion about them. Soon after, she tells Mr. Williams’ daughter-in-law about it. Fiona is distraught by the news, but she also believes it. She urges Michael to talk to his father about it at the same time that Mr. Williams rehearses his ‘death’ speech for the two of them. In the end, neither is able to confront the other.

At the time Mr. Williams was working, there were a few ladies who wished for a children’s park in their neighborhood. None of the departments were ready to work on this project, so the folder bounced from desk to desk. Mr. Williams doesn’t return to work for two months after meeting up with Miss Harris that one day. After confessing his illness to her, he returns to work in robust form. Now, he wants to create this park and leave something behind. This is his way of feeling alive. Together with the ladies and his colleagues, Mr. Williams sets out on this mission to make it happen, but is his legacy created?


‘Living’ Ending Explained – What Legacy Does Mr. Rodney Williams Leave Behind?

Just as Mr. Williams is shown to begin his work in the park, the screen blacks out to his funeral. We see the women who worked hard to get the park made crying uncontrollably at the loss of Mr. Williams. Slowly, the stories behind the park are revealed. Mr. Williams worked day and night to make the park a reality. It was he who waited for Parks and Recreation to look at the paperwork, to beg Sir James to give the plan a chance, and he who went down to the park every day to see how the disastrous, war-torn area was reborn as a children’s playground. In all those months until winter, Mr. Williams hid his illness very well, giving no one a hint of what was going on inside of him. Later, Wakeling, who had devotedly helped Mr. Williams at the park, realized he had seen signs of the illness but paid no heed to them. Michael is ashamed of the way he let his father pass in the ‘cold,’ but in truth, he never knew that his father had finally found happiness on the swings of the park that he helped build. Michael knew that it was Miss Harris who knew that his father was sick, so he wondered why not him. Miss Harris tries to convince Michael that she knew that Mr. Williams was happy at the end and that it was not so cold where he went.

In the end, it is perseverance that grants Mr. Williams what he chases: happiness. In a personal and confidential letter to Wakeling, Mr. Williams wrote that he would recommend that Wakeling visit the playground whenever he felt like, essentially, a zombie. It was Miss Harris who told Mr. Williams that she had nicknamed him Mr. Zombie because he was like the ‘walking dead.’ So maybe for Peter not to falter under the weight of all the grind at work, he gave him the direction to withstand. After all, it is not a lasting monument they have built but a ‘small thing.’ Peter, who always had his eyes on Miss Harris, finally got to know her a little more. In the end, when he views the park in admiration, a police officer walks up to him. It is he who saw Mr. Williams in his last hours because that winter day, a song was sung. Mr. Williams sat gayly on the swing and sang his favorite Scottish song before taking his last breath. The police officer confides in Wakeling that he couldn’t manage to make Mr. Williams leave because of how contended he looked. He felt sorry for what he did, but it was Wakeling who told him that it was not his fault because Mr. Williams had a terminal illness. He is thankful that the officer left him in his most ‘alive’ moment.


In the end, it is actually the young minds that Mr. Williams has inspired to be more like him that are his legacy. He is remembered by all because of the park, but he has left a lasting effect on every single person he interacted with throughout his last months. Yes, the park may be a small thing, but for the people who need it, it is monumental.

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Ruchika Bhat
Ruchika Bhat
Ruchika, or "Ru," is a fashion designer and stylist by day and a serial binge-watcher by night. She dabbles in writing when she has the chance and loves to entertain herself with reading, K-pop dancing, and the occasional hangout with friends.

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