In Hollywood movies, couples are always either fabulous or awful, sickeningly perfect or spectacularly unhappy: they’re never ordinary or flawed or unkempt; they never seem like us.
But this sombre gem of a domestic drama bucks that trend to give us a couple we can identify with, a middle-aged pair who endure life’s slings and arrows with good-humoured stoicism. Directed by northern Irish husband-and-wife team Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa, Ordinary Love is written by playwright Owen McCafferty and loosely based on his own domestic experiences. It’s essentially a two-hander, and places a heavy burden on its leads, who rise to the challenge splendidly.
Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) live quietly and contentedly in a leafy Belfast suburb: they do everything together, share a jokey code, and take ritual evening walks to keep the circulation flowing. He likes beer and football, she’d rather a good book, but their differences feel oddly complementary. They know each other inside out but never seem bored in each other’s company: she makes him soups that contain a mystery ingredient, he’s supposed to guess but pretends not to notice. They seem to be in for the long haul: then, one day, Joan discovers a lump on her breast.
It turns out to be cancerous, and the beginning of a torrid journey through diagnosis, surgery and chemo. And as Tom and Joan face each other across a suddenly sombre breakfast table, one wonders if their love will survive the coming storm.
The older you get, the more reassuring home is, but diagnoses like this one will rock any domestic fortress to its core. As Joan begins her treatment, Tom does his best to rally round and to help. “I suppose my job in all this is to be calm,” he says at one point, but his wife is quick to point out that this is happening to her, not him. Beyond a certain point, we’re all doomed to suffer alone, and Joan finds deeper understanding of her plight when she talks to a fellow cancer patient called Peter (David Wilmot), who once taught the couple’s daughter in school.
We then find out that this is not the first time Joan and Tom have circled the wagons: they depend on each other profoundly, and both are quietly horrified by the idea that their bond may soon be shattered.
Rhythm is central to the success of Ordinary Love, an almost musical or metronomic quality to Tom and Joan’s life that makes even life’s harshest blows palatable. That evening walk is the perfect case in point, a tandem ritual that reinforces their bond but begins to lose its slick fluidity once Joan gets her bad news. The minutiae of cancer treatment have their rhythm too, a grim routine of bodily invasion and quiet humiliation that may be worth persevering with, or not. That hidden netherworld is splendidly evoked by Ordinary Love, as a gloomy counterpoint to the soothing lull of domesticity.
A thoroughly grown-up film in the best possible sense, Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa’s drama gives us love without the glamour, without conditions, in the end without limits: and in fact there’s an irony in the title, because there’s nothing ordinary about that kind of commitment at all. It also reminds us, with a quiet jolt, that Liam Neeson can act.
No guns at his disposal here, no gallery of one-dimensional enemies or simplistic revenge missions. Instead, he is simply required to be, to inhabit the lazy, comfortable body of an ordinary, unambitious man. He does so brilliantly, with compelling unfussiness and naturalism: the film-makers have recently said that they heard Neeson’s voice when first they read the screenplay; his soft burr stands the best chance of convincing Joan that everything’s going to be ok.
For at least the last 20 years, in her work with Mike Leith and others, Lesley Manville has been one of the preeminent actresses in British cinema. Her extraordinary portrayal of a 50s fashion designer’s fiercely loyal sister in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread earned an Academy Award nomination that really should have yielded an Oscar. She’s at her focussed best here playing a woman struggling to cope with an open-ended illness. There’s a compelling rawness to her acting, particularly during a touching love scene on the eve of a mastectomy. All of which makes Ordinary Love sound like tough going: instead, it’s oddly life-affirming.