Drama, rated R, 92 minutes, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Lesley Manville is an actress who holds your gaze. And the movie Ordinary Love, which tracks one particularly tough year in the life of a long-married couple, takes full advantage of that fact and to our great benefit.
Liam Neeson, also easy on the eyes, plays the stoic husband, but Manville, as a woman who receives a frightening cancer diagnosis early in the film, demands our attention every second she’s on screen, whether scared, smiling, poker-faced or — when chemo makes her hair fall out — getting her head shaved by her attentive, wryly teasing spouse.
Manville plays Joan, and Neeson her husband, Tom, in a moving story that takes us through 12 months of medical tests, surgeries, treatments, side effects, and the aftermath. (Interestingly, the film — which was shot in Belfast, where the United Kingdom’s National Health Service provides most services free — never mentions cost once.)
But this is no medical drama. As much focus as the film devotes to clinical procedures, even more of it is directed at relationships. In addition to Tom and Joan’s marriage, which has the warm if slightly itchy feel of a pair of wool socks, the film also looks at Joan’s friendship with a fellow cancer patient (David Wilmot), who used to teach their late daughter.
That loss — mentioned only obliquely — informs Tom and Joan’s unusually close bond and also offers the opportunity for a slightly contrived scene in which Tom delivers a monologue at his dead daughter’s gravesite while Joan is having tests at the hospital. Other than that, the screenplay by Irish playwright Owen McCafferty (Quietly) is a lovely, understated thing.
It includes some heavy conversations, freighted with Tom and Joan’s reciprocal fears and insecurities, and we see the toll these stresses take on them in an ugly argument. The fight adds critical texture to a tale that might otherwise be all about the unstinting devotion of a selfless spouse.
But the true subject of Ordinary Love is the mundane. Much of the film centers on quotidian routine: meals; grocery shopping; bickering about traffic; and, when Joan gets sick, the domestic adjustments made to accommodate painkillers, nausea and, inevitably, far more major sacrifices.
Ordinary Love might sound, by one measure, slight. As Humphrey Bogart observed in Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” But that film was set against the tumultuous backdrop of World War II, and this one, well, is more concerned with how many Brussels sprouts to buy.
The point being: Even when questions of life and death loom large, someone still has to make dinner. That observation doesn’t make Ordinary Love a major motion picture event. But it does, in its own quiet, wise way, nudge it just a little bit closer to the extraordinary.