Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s intimate drama “Ordinary Love” loves to show health-conscious husband and wife Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (and Lesley Manville) on their evening stroll, a contented retired couple walking the same path alongside a rather un-scenic, busy street. Until five minutes in, when Joan finds a lump in her breast and the pair gradually realize some roads must be walked alone. He belongs in the world of the healthy; she’s increasingly more comfortable among the sick. During chemo, Joan dreams of a train ride where she leaves her husband behind at the station. “We’re both going through this,” Neeson protests. Shouts Manville, “No, we’re not!”
Their lives were already hermetic, especially since they lost their daughter, Debbie. If they ever had friends, they don’t appear to now. In their airless house, any small change is noticeable, like when Joan adds a jig of Worcestershire to the soup. They’re even slow drivers. Yet, they’re plenty of company for themselves, two people whose mouths are always in motion, delighted to mock-bicker over buying Brussels sprouts or going out for a beer. Tom and Joan tease each other with genuine affection — otherwise, when chemotherapy claims her hair, Neeson would never get away with the line “I never really liked your hair to begin with.”
Very little happens on the surface of Owen McCafferty’s script, as everything life or death is taking place inside Manville. “Ordinary Love” has space to notice the details, like when Tom chooses to drink tea in the hospital cafeteria rather than hold Joan’s hand upstairs. A disagreement over whether to have homemade pork chops for dinner or go out for Thai is a micro-drama reflecting their diverging approach to illness. She wants to pretend everything is ordinary; he wants to do something. Watching action man Neeson face a problem he can’t fix adds to the audience’s frustration. Not that Manville’s character sees his agony — D’Sa and Leyburn only let him reveal weakness when he’s alone.
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The film is beautifully lit and artfully composed — perhaps too much so, once the only colors in the film are blue, gray, brown and, occasionally, the shocking ultraviolet light of medical equipment prodding Joan’s body. When the directors allow one shot of green leaves reflecting on Manville’s face as the camera looks in through a window at her chatting with terminally ill new friend Peter (David Wilmot), we appreciate the break from the visual claustrophobia but also experience a ripple of annoyance that the film doesn’t trust us to feel her emotions without it.
David Holmes and Brian Irvine’s score is melodic and insistent, and it knows when to fall away into silence to let the audience appreciate Neeson and Manville’s superb chemistry. He’s so large beside her, he could put her in his pocket, as Katharine Hepburn swooned to Jimmy Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story.” And when Manville quietly looks at him — whether in anger or affection — it’s beautiful. Seeing two characters who deeply love each other makes it more heartbreaking to hear Joan sigh, “We’re all just, really, just on our own.” Their romance is meant to motor our own hearts to be more resilient, but really, if this near-perfect couple can’t talk through their problems, who can?