Image Credit: Universal Pictures
Director: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Starring: Liam Neeson, Amit Shah, Lesley Manville
Running Time: 1hr 32mins
There is something ever-so-slightly misleading in the marketing for this new film from the Good Vibrations directors, Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa. Both the title and the very Hollywoodish poster suggested a slow, actorly chamber piece, a prestige drama exploring married love and a relationship in crisis, in the vein of the recent 45 Years. Ordinary Love is that, to an extent, but it also very much something else: it is, essentially, a Cancer Film, with all the capitalisations and portentous intonation that label implies. In fact, at times it can feel as though the 45 Years model was the kind of movie the filmmakers were going for, only to find the cancer to be just as domineering and bludgeoning a presence in their film as it becomes in their characters’ lives; but the result is a textured and heartfelt work, one of the more clear-eyed cinematic depictions of serious illness that you are likely to see.
Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson play Joan and Tom, an elderly Northern Irish couple who have been married, we presume, for many years. They had one daughter, who they then tragically lost, in unspecified circumstances. One morning, Joan discovers a lump on her breast. What follows is a full, conscientious account of Joan’s illness, from discovery to diagnosis to treatment and beyond, laid out with a mixture of compassion and occasionally excruciating matter-of-factness. The sheer power of the illness, its brutal impact on a life, as well as the terrifying banality of the treatment process, is conveyed with great force and subtlety by a script which neatly sidesteps both the sentimentality and the emotional over-reaching, the conscious striving after some higher human truth, which can plague similarly ‘worthy’ films.
The film’s real ace-in-the-hole, however, is in its leads. Manville is one of the most intelligent and expressive actresses working today, and her work here is the essence of restraint and honesty, a wholly credible picture of kindly, dignified decency doing its utmost to survive the most intense of pressures. The mammogram Joan undergoes a short way into the film is one of its most affecting scenes, with Manville’s face flickering and shifting through every pitch and kind of emotion, from polite determination to an almost cosmic dread, in a manner far beyond the capabilities of the script. Neeson is also typically excellent, his particular brand of craggy, monolithic masculinity proving the ideal foil for Manville’s hyper-expressivity; whenever that mighty front crumbles, such as in his reaction after the death of his pet fish, it is almost difficult to watch, as though we have little right to share this most private of griefs. The two actors have an easy chemistry, and all the natural rapport of a long life lived together – the love scene that precedes Joan’s double mastectomy, in which Tom says a bittersweet goodbye to the breasts he has known through so many years of marriage, is beautifully tender, the moment perfectly pitched by both actors.
Indeed, the couple’s relationship – their ordinary love – is not so much the subject of the film as the fabric of it. Cancer does not admit of mitigation, or of consolations, and it is never really posited as an antagonist to the larger story of their marriage. In a strange way, the relationship and the illness are almost irrelevant to one another. Whilst fault lines appear, in scenes of excoriating power, there is never the sense that the cancer poses any kind of existential threat to their marriage; likewise, there is little sense or hope that their love will save them in any tangible way. There is a hard honesty in this, in the way the film treats of love’s limitations: there is no suggestion that there is something lacking, or fundamentally wrong in their relationship which, once added, could be the thing to see them both through the experience. The cancer appears simply as an ungovernable catastrophe, something functioning outside the rules of ordinary life, and something that lands on that life with the undiscriminating force of a sledgehammer. There is little hope of Joan and Tom’s relationship being much more than the home to which they might finally, limply return, once the blow recedes.
Ordinary Love is not an easy watch, and is at times not particularly enjoyable; but it has the sad, slow ring of authentic truth, as anyone affected by cancer will testify. It is elegant and well-pitched, and is a necessary corrective to the mawkish, Fault in our Stars school of Hollywood films about terminal illness.
Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York