'Ordinary Love': Film Review | TIFF 2019
Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson star as a couple coping with her breast cancer diagnosis in Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Lyburn's drama.
As quiet and thoughtfully composed as a Dutch master's painting, Ordinary Love uses clean lines and well observed tiny details to build up a deeply moving, nuanced portrait of a marriage under strain after a cancer diagnosis. Liam Neeson, playing a sweet but schlubby average guy who barely wants to go out for a walk, let alone battle terrorists, stars opposite Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) as his tiny but fierce spouse, together incarnating the kind of extraordinary regular people you see every day in hospital waiting rooms.
Playwright Owen McCafferty's first screenplay, informed by his own experience of supporting his wife through breast cancer, takes an unblinking look at how illness like this can be a forge that fuses or a fire that incinerates a marriage. In the sensitive hands of married directing team Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Lyburn (who made the delightful punk history lesson Good Vibrations which, like this film, is shot and set in Northern Ireland), Ordinary Love becomes a scroll of minutely observed, almost uneventful scenes, filled with the nervous chatter of coping, that almost imperceptibly build up the pressure until the pain becomes almost too much to bear. A proper emotional wringer that's never for a second manipulative or sentimental, this should win plaudits, especially for the leads.
Apparently retired and comfortably off, 60-somethings Joan (Manville) and Tom (Neeson) live in a suburb of Belfast in a cozy womb of a house, with lots of wood paneling and smooshy-soft but tasteful cushions. Every day they go for a brisk walk along the waterfront, turning around to head home at one particular spindly tree, whose blossoming and then bare boughs mark the seasons as the film progresses. Then they have supper, watch TV, chat and go to bed, a life of harmonious, comfortingly dull routine, often filmed with the pair in silhouette against bright backlighting, making them look like iconic cutouts of a happy couple but also occluded by the glare of the universe around them.
Then Joan finds a lump in her left breast. Tom smirks when she invites him to see if he can feel it too, and the couple aren't unduly worried at first. But when their GP (Esh Alladi) suggests they get it checked out at the hospital, and the doctor there (Melanie Clark Pullen) says there's a chance it could be cancer, the situation gets more frightening by tiny clicks each day.
McCafferty's script perceptively captures the way people negotiate with the odds dispensed by medical professionals. When the doctor says that on a scale of five, the likelihood Joan has cancer stands at a three, effectively a 50-50 situation, Tom posits that three is closer to one, which therefore means she doesn't have cancer. Joan argues, on the other hand, that three is closer to five than to zero, and that means she does have cancer. When the results come back positive, Manville looks duly devastated, but there's also just the tiniest, slyest hint of triumph, a nonverbal flicker of "I told you so" as she realizes she won the argument.
It's remorselessly honest moments like that which make this film so remarkable and beadily observed. Naturally there are the obligatory tears, setbacks and triumphs you would expect from any film about cancer. But we also see many of the bits so many illness films leave out: the waiting, the awkward silences, the kind or even baffling words of advice from strangers, at different stages in the process themselves, who you meet passing through the wards or sitting outside on the benches having a smoke.
There are instantly recognizable moments of anxiety and social awkwardness that British viewers in particular, steeped in the complex etiquette of the National Health Service system, will relate to. At one point, for instance, while awaiting a diagnosis in a waiting room, Tom goes to the bathroom, and just when he's out of sight Joan is called to see the doctor. For several agonizing seconds of screen time, she must persuade the nurse who summoned her to wait until Tom comes back, worried that if they go to the doctor's office he won't find them, but if she slows things down too much they'll be sent to the back of the queue. It's like a Richard Curtis comedy-of-embarrassment skit, but without the laughs.
Conversely, the film boldly chooses not to fill in every blank or answer every question. We never find out, for example, what Tom and Joan used to do for a living, or how their only child, Debbie, died 10 years ago, perhaps because those details don't really matter now. The illness strips everything away, leaving wounds that gentle kisses can make only so much better. (An exquisitely tender sex scene, where they say goodbye to Joan's breasts, is one of the performance highlights of the film, simultaneously awkward, funny and oddly erotic.)
And yet, even though the experience brings new people into their lives such as Peter (David Wilmot, all sad twinkling eyes) — a former teacher of their daughter's who's now terminally ill and whose husband (Amit Shah) is struggling to cope just like Tom — at one point someone remarks that despite everything, nothing has really changed. That basic paradox gets to the very heart of how we survive, a lesson told with the lightest of touches in this ineffably beautiful film.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson, David Wilmot, Amit Shah, Melanie Clark Pullen, Esh Alladi, Geraldine McAlinden, Lalor Roddy
Production companies: A Bleecker Street, the BFI, Northern Ireland Screen presentation in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Kreo Films and Bankside Films of a Canderblinks Films, Out Of Orbit production
Directors: Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glenn Lyburn
Screenwriter: Owen McCafferty
Producers: Brian J. Falconer, David Holmes, Piers Tempest
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Natascha Wharton, Stephen Kelliher, Jo Bamford, René Besson, Mark Huffam, Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glenn Lyburn
Director of photography: Piers McGrail
Production designer: Nigel David Pollock
Costume designer: Susan Scott
Editor: Nick Emerson
Music: David Holmes, Brian Irvine
Casting: Des Hamilton, Georgia Topley
Sales: Bankside FIlms