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Liam Neeson as Tom and Lesley Manville as Joan in Ordinary Love.Courtesy of levelFILM

  • Ordinary Love
  • Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn
  • Written by Owen McCafferty
  • Starring Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville
  • Classification PG; 92 minutes

Rating:

4 out of 4 stars

It’s hard to make a film about the middle of anything, especially a long marriage. Cinema loves a beginning, the falling in love. And it can do a heck of a lot with an ending – witness Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. But the middle is tough.

The presumption is that if a couple has stayed together long enough, there’s no drama left. In fact, there are thousands of dramas – microdramas, dramas of nuance. Any marriage that lasts is like a lake full of both jagged stumps and gorgeous fish. It looks placid on the surface, but old wounds lurk an inch away, as do long-standing jokes and shared memories, the nuances that bring you closer. Couples convey volumes with a single look, or with the slightest shift in tone. You may ask each other, “What’s that supposed to mean?” But you already know.

‘My thing is to be a chameleon’: Actress Lesley Manville reflects on a long and glittering career

Your weekend movie guide: The four-star Ordinary Love and serviceable The Call of the Wild

The new British film Ordinary Love solves its drama problem by choosing from Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan’s (Lesley Manville) long marriage the year that Joan is diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.

But don’t be fooled. Although writer Owen McCafferty and co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn – themselves a married couple – get all the cancer stuff right, Joan’s disease isn’t the point. The point is to take a good, long look at that rarest of cinematic subjects: the good, long marriage.

We meet the couple in Belfast, just after Christmas, but years after their only daughter has died (we never learn how or when). We infer that weathering this terrible heartache has made them solid. They tease each other, they take a walk every evening, they still have sex. They share a verbal tic, the habit of saying, “Very good,” when one of them lands a zinger. Their life together isn’t thrill-a-minute – when asked how Tom is, Joan replies, “He’s Tom all the time.” But they’re lucky to have each other, and they know it.

Then, a call from the shower – “Come feel this lump” – followed by the everyday horror of doctor visits, hospital tests, chemotherapy, surgery. But at some point, you realize, all that is background. The foreground is these two singular characters, and how they behave when their love is tested: when they show fear and when they don’t. When they bicker and when they apologize. When they protect each other and when they can’t.

Though the writer and co-directors get all the cancer stuff right, Joan’s disease isn’t the highlight of the drama.Courtesy of levelFILM

Manville and Neeson make a brilliant and – thank you, directors – age-appropriate couple. He’s a full foot taller than she, which they sometimes play for laughs. But it also makes sense. She’s tiny, but tough; he’s a bear, but a softie. He chooses to let her lead when it’s physically obvious that he doesn’t have to.

Manville has long been a mistress of nuance, in everything from her Oscar-nominated role as Daniel Day-Lewis’s flinty sister in Phantom Thread to her recurring ensemble work for director Mike Leigh. Her Joan is a fully realized woman, quiet but not meek. And what a pleasure to watch Neeson, who usually spends his winters growling at bad guys in genre flicks, remind us of what an excellent actor he can be.

And a dishy one. In a crucial scene, Tom and Joan check into a hotel the night before she’s to undergo a double mastectomy. Their agenda is clear: They are going to have sex. (Anyone who’s been married a while will hold their breath here. Things can go so wrong.) Manville is note-perfect, and plenty vulnerable: She’s bald, she’s topless. But it’s Neeson’s vulnerability – his husbandliness – that makes the scene work.

Similarly, the couple’s low point isn’t when Joan is sick from chemo or wincing in pain. The low point is when Joan’s terror of death and Tom’s terror of losing her collide in a scathing argument, where lines are uttered that seem almost impossible to come back from. It’s only a few sentences, but they are choice. Because we’ve come to know these people, it feels like a kick in our own hearts.

But here’s the thing: Joan and Tom do come back from it. The couples who stay together figure out how to do that. Ordinary Love is an argument that, as hard as that is, it’s worth it. Not because you want someone who sticks around to get you through chemo, but because if you stay together through something crushing, moments of grace lie on the other side.

Tom says churlish things, and he also says shining, perfect things. So yes, he’s “Tom, all the time.” But what that means, within a good marriage, is that both Tom and Joan get to see more, and show more, and be more, when the time is right.

Ordinary Love opens across Canada on Feb. 21.

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