It takes bravery to open a film with a completely banal discussion between two characters about who’s going to be first to get in the shower. Ordinary Love is certainly a brave film. It’s a disease weepie, but it’s not one full of maudlin nonsense and scenes of tearful speechifying destined for a spot amid a showy Oscar night montage. This is a portrait of a marriage that feels very real, thrown into chaos by a cruel twist of fate that could happen to just about anyone.
Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) have been married for a very long time. Their life is comfortable but melancholic as they are surrounded by a cloud of grief as a result of the death of their daughter years previously. They have settled into a sort of steady banter, in which they crack softball jokes and lightly bicker about the numbers on their Fitbits. But this fragile peace is shattered when Joan finds a lump on her breast.
This is a gentle, sensitive film from Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn – last seen at the helm of the terrific pop biopic Good Vibrations – but one that knows where to land its emotional punches. The devil is very much in the detail here, mostly avoiding the sensationalist clichés of the disease drama in favour of more nuanced and, yes, ordinary elements of these characters and their lives.
This embrace of the mundane is palpable in the performances of the two leads. Neeson, playing a character living in his native Northern Ireland for the first time in years, relishes the opportunity to portray a very normal man, albeit one who is given texture and nuance beneath the veneer of snark by Neeson’s performance, as well as Owen McCafferty’s smart, tender script. He’s a man desperate to help the woman he loves, but one who very believably can’t do that without tripping up and making things worse.
Even better than Neeson, though, is Lesley Manville in a performance that is heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure. This is not the cliché of a defiant survivor; it’s far more nuanced. Joan wilts and struggles in the face of her diagnosis and its assorted symptoms, from irritable exhaustion through to her losing her hair. Manville wears all of this with a complexity that feels very real, especially in her friendship with a terminal patient (David Wilmot) and his partner (Amit Shah, who gets a standout scene in the final act).
But it’s in the chemistry between the two stars that Ordinary Love finds its groove. D’Sa and Leyburn rejoice in the simplicity of scenes in which they share dinner – Tom silently adds salt to his soup while Joan looks away from the table – or debate the cost of hospital parking and which colour bins need to be taken out. It’s also a film that’s refreshingly frank about sexuality involving older characters, as well as those suffering from a serious illness. These people are unflinchingly real to the extent that what makes them special is what makes them ordinary.
There are, of course, some broader strokes when the film gets to its third act, but Ordinary Love earns every single one of them by virtue of its believable world – Piers McGrail’s cinematography is brown, softly lit and keyed into crafting this comfortable, married life milieu – and stellar performances. It’s not shouting to the rafters or playing to the multiplex crowd, but this is a nuanced and complex portrait of human beings dealing with hardship. It’s a low-key triumph.
Dir: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Scr: Owen McCafferty
Cast: Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson, David Wilmot, Amit Shah, Lalor Roddy
Prd: Brian J. Falconer, David Holmes, Piers Tempest
DOP: Piers McGrail
Music: David Holmes
Run time: 92 mins
Ordinary Love screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival and will be released into UK cinemas on 6th December.