In playing Tom and Jane, an older married couple, Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville exhibit grace and dignity as they weather life’s hardship’s together.
It’s a gutsy call to saddle a film with a title like Ordinary Love; and gutsier still to hone in on two characters like Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville), an older married couple so deeply rooted in their familiar togetherness that no one else needs to exist in their quite ordinary world.
They take brisk walks in their neighborhood and come home, where they settle in front of their television so that Tom can enjoy a beer, with a little needling from Joan. The pair wanders the aisles of the grocery store, bickering about Brussels sprouts and the amount of alcohol they need to purchase. Every quip arrives, infused with years of affection and a sense of repetition. Their life together has eased into the comfort of routine, a sameness that, for some viewers, could feel like limbo, a suspension between ecstasy and the void.
Personally, I listened to Tom as he called Joan “Kid” from time to time and heard myself referring to my wife and children as “Babe.” Each one of them knows exactly which one I’m talking to or about in any given moment, because the pet name has a different inflection depending on which one I’m addressing. That specificity takes time to build, lifetimes of love and meaning.
When Joan, while showering after their walk, notices what she believes is a lump in one of her breasts, their ordinary façade starts to crack. Tom doesn’t want to consider any possibilities until they know something definite. Joan can’t help imagining the worst. Once cancer is confirmed, a brittleness emerges in their exchanges. Tom continues to make jokes to lighten the mood, but Joan eyes him now with impatience. He promises to never leave her side, yet as the humor begins to fade, his presence becomes a heavy burden.
Screenwriter Owen McCafferty, a playwright offering his first filmed screenplay, teasingly introduces a daughter who died years earlier in an accident. There’s no need for details, because it is obvious that this child has been with them every day since her passing. On the day of her surgery to remove the cancerous lump, Joan sends Tom to the cemetery for a visit with specific instructions to not mention the lump or the surgery.
This scene, with Neeson at the gravesite, captures a futility in him not usually seen, especially in his Taken franchise. As Taken’s Bryan Mills, former soldier and trained operative, Neeson embodies a man who knows exactly what to do at any given moment. He can punch or shoot his way out through any obstacle and his endangered loved ones will be safe. Here, for once, Neeson is just a man without skills or a plan, or even words of comfort for his wife. He tells his daughter his fears, knowing that even this gesture is, at the end of the day, empty.
“I couldn’t have both of you gone,” he says, “I’d just drift.” That admission becomes extraordinary. The mundane lives directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn have built from McCafferty’s script shatter. The pieces begin to cut and bleed. The early fights full of soft love taps drag into a war of attrition as Joan starts chemotherapy and Tom indeed begins to drift.
Manville, in her own way, embraces Joan’s situation as completely as Neeson does Tom’s. She reveals in every moment the effort necessary to create the ordinary world that belongs to both Joan and Tom. She actively holds it together, accepting the safety of Tom’s humor, transforming it into the kind of love that he wants to express more directly. And she gives love in return in the best way for a man like Tom to appreciate it. That’s the sign of monumental craft, birthing a lifetime of experience in a glance or a gesture.
There’s a grace and dignity in watching Neeson and Manville deal together. They make Tom and Joan into people you want to be like — forget being like Mike or LeBron or the latest Romeo and Juliet personas in our social media timelines. These are true examples of role models living fully in small ordinary moments. This is a representation of real love and how it can last. Ordinary Love is an honest reflection of what it takes to live through sickness and health, once the passionate bells and whistles have faded, and hold steady for whatever lies ahead. (Opens March 6) (R) Grade: B+