“Ordinary Love” isn’t really a movie about cancer, even though this tender and discreet portrait of a marriage on fire begins with a woman (Lesley Manville) asking her longtime husband (Liam Neeson) to feel the lump she finds under her left breast. It isn’t even a movie about dying, even though Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s direction casts a moribund pall over the drama from the moment it starts. On the contrary — and true to the title of Owen McCafferty’s semi-autobiographical script — “Ordinary Love” is a story about all of the ways that even the strongest of couples can be separated before death does them part; a story about how different kinds of pain can trace the limits and boundlessness of sharing your life with someone.
Tom and Joan have been together for so long that the world outside of their marriage only seems to exist in soft focus. The two retirees live a quiet upper-middle-class existence in a seaside Irish town, and spend their afternoons power-walking along the water in order to satisfy the demands of their FitBits (she always wears earbuds, but they still manage to make each other laugh along the way). They bicker a lot, but only to remind each other they’re still alive. “I know what you’re going to say” is the most honest part of every argument, and also the reason for having them. When someone asks after Joan’s husband, she can only reply that “He’s Tom all the time.”
The tumor is the first new test this couple has faced in a long time, even if it points towards a previous tragedy that may be holding their marriage together by centrifugal force. They react to the various test results and screenings in different but consistently inconsistent ways; Joan braces for the worst, while Tom is petrified of letting his wife know that he’s scared. Strange pockets of distance begin to grow between them, as the film’s Haneke-still compositions start to separate these characters in time and space (sometimes it divides them across different floors, sometimes by different shots, and sometimes by nothing more than the crack between two panes of glass in a restaurant window). Joan’s hair falls out in clumps as she sweats through a chemo-induced fever, while Tom drowns his sorrows with a beer in front of the television. To what extent is this happening to both of them? How feasible is it for two people to share in this kind of hardship?
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The probing nature of these eternal questions — when asked with the seriousness they demand — is enough to make “Ordinary Love” feel like something of an ultra-sedate counterpoint to “Phantom Thread,” in which Manville was the bystander to a marriage sustained by the transference of pain from one partner to the other. Reynolds Woodcock would make Alma suffer, Alma would return the favor, and both would find strength in the weaknesses they wielded. But the average couple doesn’t know how to handle that kind of well-controlled sadomasochism; the average couple is always looking for ways to make love symmetrical in a way that life can never be. And while “Ordinary Love” is so hermetically sealed inside the bubble of its cracking relationship that the film always feels like it’s about to suffocate to death, it’s so attuned to the meniscus of a “healthy” marriage that it remains touching even at its most inert.
Of course, it helps that Manville and Neeson are both extraordinary actors who are able to conjure a deep sense of shared history between them. This is a movie that knows that watching bad TV and bickering at the supermarket aren’t the tribulations of a marriage, but the marrow of it. It isn’t always entertaining to watch — and even those who see themselves reflected in this story might find themselves growing stir-crazy by the sparseness of its telling — but it never rings false.
At the risk of glibly extrapolating lived experience from the events of Neeson’s personal life, his best performances often find him deteriorating into grief; it’s amazing how such a large man can disappear in front of your eyes in a way that makes the space around him look that much emptier. Manville does an extraordinary job of navigating between bitterness and brittleness; never over the top and sometimes heartbreakingly soft, she plays Joan as a woman whose greatest hurt might be the loosening sense of unity that’s kept she and Tom together for all these years.
On the other hand, it’s a gamble to cast such remarkable (and recognizable) performers as two pointedly regular people. The movie’s greatest value lies in how it blows up the most average of conflicts into the stuff of big screen drama, but “Ordinary Love” is too sedate to milk the disconnect between its everyday saga and the larger-than-life stars who embody it; this could be anyone’s story, but it isn’t, and the film is too in denial of that tension to make anything meaningful from it. Still, there’s something to be said for a movie that shines a light into matters of the heart without having to break yours completely, and longtime couples will find this to be Valentine’s Day viewing par excellence. It’s rare to see something so unafraid to reckon with the finite boundaries of a partnership, and the way that marriage constantly forces people to renegotiate what it really means to share a life together.
“Ordinary Love” is now playing in theaters.