Being a ‘gentleman’ is not an aesthetic issue, but an ethical call – 04/17/2023 – João Pereira Coutinho

It rains in London and there’s no better refuge than a bookstore. Piccadilly Hatchards serves like no other.

I go in, check out the news, look at the first editions. There is a “Ravelstein”, by Saul Bellow, signed by himself. The price is not scary. The day is won.

(There’s also an “Indignation” by Philip Roth, also autographed. But, as my grandmother used to say, I don’t stretch out because the bed is short.)

So I go up one more floor and continue my hunt. Next to me, participating in the same safari, is a gentleman of a certain age, tall, thin, white hair, dark glasses. Impeccably dressed. Eye. It’s actor Bill Nighy.

If there was a picture in the dictionary to illustrate a “gentleman” (“gentleman”, in the faulty Portuguese translation; “kind man” would perhaps be better), it would have to be Nighy. The pose, the reserve, the cult of “understatement”.

I’ve seen him in the movies, I’ve seen him in the theater. Off screen and offstage, he remains in character, which means there is no character. But is that a compliment?

Or are there dangers in the ambition to be a “gentleman”?

It depends on what we mean by the word – and Bill Nighy himself reflected on the subject in the film “Living”, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for best actor this year.

In the film, Nighy is Mr. Williams, a bureaucrat at City Hall in London, whom one of the employees surreptitiously addresses as “Mr. Zombie”.

In fact. Williams is undead. Every morning, in a dark suit and bowler hat, he takes the train to Waterloo Station. Short on words, he works undisturbed at his desk.

When there are urgent processes –such as the request for the construction of a playground–, he redirects the process to other city hall departments.

Unsurprisingly, the other departments do the same — until everything is back where it started.

Mr. Williams, without raising an eyebrow, puts the process in limbo and then washes his hands, like a Pilate for whom time and urgency do not exist. “Delay is life” (“delay is life”), as Prime Minister Salisbury said.

Everything changes with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Time, and the urgency to live it, starts to count in another way for that man. But he doesn’t know how to act. He does not know how to “live a little” before premature parting.

At the end of the day, and as he confesses at the film’s most important moment, his ambition has always been to be a “gentleman”.

And by “gentleman” I mean: cultivate the right attitude, wear the right clothing. Wearing the right armor, in short, to protect yourself from life as it is.

Mr. Williams resembles Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, trapped in a “comme il faut” existence.

Only death, the proximity of death, will teach Mr. Williams that there is another meaning for the word “gentleman”: it is to be able to do what is right, what is decent, what is human, especially when everyone else is incapable of the task, lost in the same labyrinth of appearances. and affectation.

For the first time in his life, Mr. Williams understands that being a “gentleman” is not an aesthetic issue; it is an ethical call, a form of inner freedom. Happiness, even in death, is only possible like this.

“Living” is an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Ikiru”. Free adaptation, by the way, because the most important thing is the fingerprint of writer Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the script.

As in his books, particularly the masterful “The Remains of the Day”, Ishiguro is interested in analyzing the tyranny of an idea – in this case, the idea of ​​”gentlemanship”, understood as a mere elegant formality.

The danger of such an idea is that it dries up “the sanctity of the heart’s affections,” as the poet John Keats would say. It is a mask that is worn over the face, atrophiing its most vital emotions, until the day the mask devours the face.

Lost in these thoughts, I realize with shame that I’ve been staring at Bill Nighy for far too long.

He, perhaps fearing for my sanity, looks at me and gives me a compassionate smile. I smile back and confirm: there is a face behind the mask.

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