When Joan (Lesley Manville, "The Phantom Thread") finds a lump in her breast, it begins a year of anxiety and uncertainty mixed with the boredom of ceaseless hospital visits, yet Joan and her husband Tom's (Liam Neeson) good humor and everyday marital rituals buoy them with "Ordinary Love."
Laura's Review: A-
With screenwriter Owen McCafferty fictionalizing his own experience, directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn ("Cherrybomb") provide a clean, modern aesthetic to their Belfast backdrop for Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson to render “Ordinary Love” extraordinary. This quiet year-in-the-life of a married couple facing mortality after having already undergone the tragedy of losing their only child doesn’t shy away from the tensions and squabbles which arise when a twosome is split between illness and care giving, making this portrayal thoroughly honest and the love shared deeper.
The film begins post-Christmas with gentle ribbing over whose responsibility it is to take decorations down made humorous with Tom’s on-the-spot jingle. Fitness is important to these two, who take a daily rigorous walk together, Tom fretting over his Fitbit, Joan chiding him over his beer intake. There is nothing special about this life featuring a daughter’s graduation picture prominently on a mantle, a guessing game about what Joan has added to their soup this time and the conflict of spontaneity versus meal planning.
When Joan’s mammography and biopsy prove inconclusive, Tom insists it will be nothing while Joan is sure it will be cancer, the couple’s differing coping mechanisms already come into play. As it turns out, Joan’s surgery lands on a special day and while Tom states he wants to be there throughout, she insists Tom uphold their tradition of ‘visiting her grave on her birthday.’ This is where we learn that young woman in the photo was taken from them. In a beautiful grace note at film’s end, they will welcome a young man adrift in grief into their home to celebrate Christmas.
It has become trite to say a performance is fearless (aka vanity free), but Manville really exposes her character at her lowest points, through hair loss, the severe illness brought on by chemotherapy and the surgical scarring of reconstructive surgery, yet when Tom tells the newly bald Manville that she is beautiful, we agree with him. Neeson, too, is compelling, his fears manifesting themselves in cranky observations and denial while his love for his wife is never in doubt. They rib each other mercilessly, bicker at the grocery store and you can just tell they wouldn’t have it any other way. This is, simply, one of the best portrayals of late middle-aged marriage that has ever been committed to screen. McCafferty opens up his screenplay organically, Joan reaching out to an old teacher of Debbie’s she spots in a waiting room, Peter (David Wilmot, "Calvary") becoming an important supporting player, someone who more truly understands what she is going through (she also has a wonderful pre-surgery moment with two strangers, the women all offering each other advice, support and good luck). Neeson has his own moment when he spies the bereft Steve (Amit Shah, "Breathe") in the hospital cafeteria and, correctly deducing this is Peter’s partner, reaches out.
“Ordinary Love” is anything but, the type of year experienced by many made relatable and incredibly moving by the filmmakers and their sterling cast.