By Lynn Venhaus
Elevated by beautifully nuanced performances from award-worthy Lesley Manville and sturdy Liam Neeson, “Ordinary Love” shows us “all the feels” between a longtime married couple facing a life-altering situation.
Married for a long time, Tom and Joan face new challenges when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Their relationship is tested during this frightening journey. The intimate contemporary drama is about the moments between a couple that give meaning to their lifetime together – by showing their daily living routine, yet underneath that microscope, they must deal with uncertainty and a test on survival.
As cancer touches every family in America, your level of comfort with the realistic details from tests to surgeries to treatment will depend if you have gone through it with a loved one, or yourself. It may trigger memories of those tense, distressing times.
Co-directors and married-in-real-life couple Lisa Barros D’ Sa and Glenn Leyburn present a comfortable, common life of two senior citizens – assuming they are retired, but nobody says from what – in the most generic way in northern Ireland. Yet, as unexciting as it is, there is revelation in its repetition.
That’s largely due to Manville and Neeson’s ease with playing two people who spend a lot of time together – conveying both affection and aggravation in equal parts. They converse in recognizable ways — bickering at the grocery store, kidding each other without malice, complaining about minor things, and sitting in their living room ‘places’ while watching television in the evening, after their daily walk – just everyday regular folks.
And that’s the beauty of Owen McCafferty’s astute script, that it dares to be mundane. The film spotlights the kind of run-of-the-mill details and feelings expressed that make it thoroughly relatable, especially with such skilled performers.
The changes with Joan’s breast cancer diagnosis are the significant test to their strength as a unit. They’ve already endured the loss of a child – their daughter Debbie “was killed” but we don’t know how or at what age. It’s frustrating to not know that information. The only drawback to the script is how little backstory we get.
Neeson becomes the dutiful caretaker while Manville reluctantly transforms from the take-charge half to someone needing help – and they both admit how frightened they are. Her ability to telegraph quicksilver emotions, large and small, is astounding, and their tenderness together is palpable.
Manville, nominated as the controlling sister in “Phantom Thread” for a supporting actress Oscar, shows the strength and courage needed to fight cancer as well as the vulnerability associated with something beyond your control. The waiting, the wondering – all captured well. And the film is nicely shot, too – a noteworthy mix of the bright lights of hospitals and the shadows of a home.
It’s refreshing to see Neeson, who has been in that action zone for years, tackle the head of household role with such honesty. On a personal note, after undergoing the tragic death of his wife of 15 years, Natasha Richardson, in 2009, that had to be difficult to re-live incidents demanded in this script, which is why tackling such a role is admirable.
The ordinariness of “Ordinary Love” makes it appealing, yet it’s the craftsmanship of the project that keeps us interested and deepens its very human perspective on staring at our mortality and life as we know it. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on – we all have learned that – but to be reminded how just ‘keep on keeping on’ is quite an achievement is not a small thing.
“Ordinary Love” is a drama rated R for brief sexuality/nudity. Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, it stars Lesley Mann and Liam Neeson. Run time: 1 hr. 32 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.