Cancer dramas are not uncommon; what lifts “Ordinary Love” just enough out of the ordinary is its concern with how a married couple survives the ordeal. Intimate, unsparing, and attuned to the micro-nuances of a longtime relationship, it is made special by the two actors at its center, both out-size talents who here relish the opportunity to play close and draw from life.
We’re used to seeing Liam Neeson play fraught biographical heroes (Schindler, Kinsey, Mark Felt) or a thinking man‘s ass-kicker; we’re used to Lesley Manville as the chilly sister of “Phantom Thread” or a reliable face in any number of Mike Leigh movies. Here they’re Joan and Tom, long-time marrieds with the coziness of those who’ve long ago sanded off each other’s edges. “Ordinary Love” starts with a normal morning: a brisk walk along the bayside together, followed by a bantering breakfast, teasing and harmonious. Then Joan takes a shower and discovers a lump.
Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn — themselves married filmmakers, which may explain the movie’s familiarity with domestic joys and prickles — the movie has been written by Irish playwright Owen McCafferty, and it’s easy to imagine this on the stage rather than the screen. But the movie’s commitment to realism means we accompany Joan and Tom on each stage of her diagnosis and treatment: The mammogram and biopsy, the lumpectomy and chemo, more radical surgery down at the end of the road. None of this is presented clinically; all of it is reflected in the faces of two partners traversing alien terrain, the spouse trying to keep pace with the patient.
“Ordinary Love” hovers in close to a fault. Tom and Joan appear to have no friends, and would it kill the filmmakers to let us know what they do or have done for a living? We do learn the couple had a daughter who died in her teens or twenties — exactly how is left unspecified — and that loss gives credence to their comfortable isolation at the film’s beginning. They’re already survivors of a disaster no one else could know.
Cancer treatment, by contrast, has a process, a path, and a bureaucracy, and much of the drama of “Ordinary Love” lies in watching these two private people nearly lose each other in the slog of hospital appointments and physical infirmity. Joan leans on Tom and worries that he’ll flinch; Tom stiffens his spine and blanks out all negative thoughts, which only makes him more miserable. Chemotherapy might have been invented to bring out all the bitter stress fractures in a marriage, and Joan’s is no different. “We’re both going through this,” Tom tries to assuage her in the movie’s most pained scene, to which Joan responds with the righteous fury of the sufferer, “No, you’re not! I’m going through this!”
Why would moviegoers subject themselves? For the performances, of course: For the indefinable expression on Manville’s face as Joan regards her hairless head for the first time, or for the way Neeson plays Tom’s invisible struggle to convert his helplessness and anger into something useful. It might be tempting to project the cast’s own biographies onto their roles — when Tom mournfully talks of losing a loved one to sudden death, it’s hard not to think of the actor’s late wife Natasha Richardson — but it’s a temptation worth resisting.
The lack of exposition and minimalist approach put a lot of weight on the performers, but Joan’s friendship with another cancer patient, Peter (David Wilmot), a former teacher of the couple’s daughter, lets some welcome air into the room. Otherwise, “Ordinary Love” is a chamber duet taking place in the actual world, featuring actors’ whose ability to work in small, intuitive strokes paints a portrait of the infinite things that can be said and unsaid in a marriage, whether tested by disease or not. It’s a bit like having a front row seat at being human.
Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn. Written by Owen McCafferty. Starring Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville. At Kendall Square. 92 minutes. R (brief sexuality, nudity)