It’s a paradox of films dealing with devastating illness — a cadre in which the newly released “Ordinary Love” is definitely included — that they’re at their best when they are the hardest to take.
The gold standard for that category is Michael Haneke’s pitiless 2012 Oscar winner “Amour,” a once-seen-never-forgotten film starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, which details what happens to a lifelong marriage when the wife suffers a series of debilitating strokes.
As directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, “Ordinary Love” is not in that league (nothing else is, either), but it shares the benefit of having a pair of superb performers as stars, in this case taking us through a year in the life of a harmonious couple dealing with a wife’s diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.
While Liam Neeson, playing husband Tom, is the bigger name courtesy of his berserker heroics in the “Taken” series, “Ordinary Love” is grounded in the great gifts of his costar Lesley Manville as wife Joan.
Oscar-nominated for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” but best known for her extensive work for director Mike Leigh, Manville is all-in here, alternating between fragility and strength as she finds ways to wordlessly express emotions one might have thought were inexpressible.
A first screenplay by veteran British playwright Owen McCafferty and set in Northern Ireland, “Ordinary Love” is based partly on experiences he and his wife went through.
The film starts with Tom and Joan as a companionable couple who like nothing better than matching each other stride for stride in exercise walks and then genially teasing each other about their mutual foibles.
Though they’d never met until both were considered for these parts, Manville and Neeson (who seems truly pleased not to be playing someone with revenge on his mind) are such accomplished performers we believe them as a married couple of long duration.
Still, these scenes of contentment have a pro forma quality about them, the kind of calm before the storm that is inevitable in a film about the onset of medical calamity.
Things start to go bad when Joan discovers a lump in her left breast, goes to see her doctor and is sent to the hospital for a series of tests and procedures matter-of-factly depicted in Piers McGrail’s cool cinematography.
Tom, whose default position is a kind of bluster, insists that the tests will prove her cancer-free. When Joan asks, “What’s going to happen if I’ve got cancer?,” he softens, telling her he will be with her every step of the way. Exploring what that turns out to mean is where “Ordinary Love” is heading.
One of the things we discover is that Joan and Tom had a daughter who died suddenly a decade earlier — we never learn why — a death that they both share and react to in different ways.
That sharing and difference is one of the strengths of “Ordinary Love,” something that’s illustrated by a dream Joan has of being alone on a train with Tom outside looking worried and confused.
Because Manville and Neeson are such potent performers, they are expert at playing out all the implications of what this experience is like.
One of the most affecting points “Ordinary Love” makes is that as much as he would like to, in reality Tom can’t share Joan’s experience, can’t know what it feels like to be the person with cancer, the person who might die.
“Ordinary Love” is also unstinting in showing the depredations of the chemotherapy Joan is prescribed, the loss of hair, the massive shifts in body temperature, the extreme pain, which makes the treatment seem almost barbaric.
And the worse things gets, the more compelling “Ordinary Love” becomes, culminating in a terrible fight nominally about which pill ought to be taken but actually stemming from the fact that both husband and wife feel on the verge of cracking up.
“Ordinary Love” can in no way sustain that level, and some elements of it, like a hospital-born friendship with one of their daughter’s former teachers (David Wilmot) and his husband (Amit Shah), feels too convenient.
What does sustain is the work of the leads, especially Manville. As her face gets increasingly drawn, even haunted, it increasing draws us in and tells us everything we need to know. Manville’s gifts and accomplishments are no surprise, but she’s never been better than she is here.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles