Starring Lesley Manville. Rated PG
Despite the darker turns taken by Ordinary Love, this carefully crafted character study really is about everyday affection. Okay, we’re mere minutes into the film when Joan Thompson (Lesley Manville) finds a worrisome lump in her breast. But the story really concerns what her marriage to Tom (Liam Neeson) is made of, and what it will endure.
Joan and Tom live in a suburban house that is heavy with the burden of too much wood panelling, brick walls, and too many memories of a daughter who died for reasons never explained in this delicate first screenplay from playwright Owen McCafferty. He’s from Northern Ireland, as are the directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, best known for Good Vibrations, their sprightly tale of the Belfast punk-rock scene.
Sprightly ain’t the word for this journey through despair, grief, hope, and beyond. But it would be wrong to assume that this is a catalogue of medical and mental procedures; they’re here, yes, but handled glancingly, to keep the focus on a bantering routine rudely interrupted by more serious events. It’s startling how many tones, textures, and rhythms the filmmakers find within a narrow range of settings. In particular, young cinematographer Piers McGrail finds every possible play of light and colour in the hospital rooms, cafés, sidewalks, and stairways where the Thompsons are found.
This adds up to a surprisingly fleet 90 minutes, although the film’s satisfying pull is ultimately down to the leads. Brit-TV veterans David Wilmot and Amit Shah, as another couple coping with an even more serious cancer, are the only other actors who have multiple scenes. This hands almost everything to Neeson, lending his weathered-falcon visage to something not involving kidnappers or international thieves, and even more to Manville.
It’s about time. Although familiar as subtly comic characters in many Mike Leigh films, she finally broke through with an Oscar nomination for playing Daniel Day-Lewis’s stern sister in Phantom Thread. Here, she gets to show everything she’s learned, leaving sensitive viewers concerned about a fictional illness—but even more worried about the personal price actors this great must pay for putting all those feelings on the screen.