Wednesday 4 December 2019

In treatment: "Ordinary Love"

Ordinary Love, from the Irish partnership of Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D'Sa (Good Vibrations), is an example of the type of film the British industry has traditionally done rather well: one that recruits fine actors for something small, intimate, manageable. The ordinary of the title is both a statement of intent, and a setting of boundaries. It opens on the image of a married couple powerwalking along an Irish seafront; though the male half of the pair, Tom (Liam Neeson), is substantially taller than his companion Joan (Lesley Manville), these two are otherwise very much in synch. It has been this way, we sense, for many, many years: at home, their conversation follows such familiar lines as when to take down the Christmas decorations, how late the post is, and a moan over the cost of parking at the hospital ("Everything's money"). That Tom has had to park at the hospital in the first place is an indicator of the change the couple are about to undergo, for - during a shower at the end of one of their walks - Joan discovers an odd little bump in her breast. Ordinary Love thus reveals itself as a sensitive, informed study of living under the shadow of breast cancer - not generally the preserve of non-TV movies, but something thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people are forced to do every day.

From the off, Leyburn and Barros D'Sa display the surest of feels for the basic fabric of that everyday: Tom's fussing over feeding the fish and putting the recycling boxes out, those afternoons when there's nowt more pressing to do than pop down to the shops for a walk and a coffee. Here are those scenes from married life that don't tend to be played out on cinema screens; leaving them in allows the filmmakers to address how the ordinary provides its own consolation when going through the extraordinary, how routines count double in times of crisis. It's the lovemaking that reassures Joan that her body is still desirable, even as it falls under attack from within; it's those morning briefings at the breakfast table that allow husband to gauge wife's feelings, and vice versa. Thrown into the mix are ominous shots of empty rooms, empty spaces. They could, in a generally comforting work of cinema, be pillow shots, of the kind traditionally deployed by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu to cushion the passage of time, the transition between scenes. They could equally be a glimpse of this couple's future, and a loving home vacated far too soon. These filmmakers know exactly what to look at, where to focus: what they film is ordinary, but it's never banal or blase.

Even faced with the deadening, sedentary prospect of Joan's chemo, Leyburn and Barros D'Sa prove alert, thoughtful, creative. For one thing, the hospital scenes serve as a repository of emboldening info, and the point where the wisdom written into this script comes closest to the surface ("Take every tablet they give you and more"). Yet they also take care to visualise the dread process of sitting and waiting and fearing the worst: the chemical induced reverie Joan has, of being carried away from her loved ones on a train, strikes us as something like an action sequence amid so much placid, closeknit domesticity. For all that it frames Tom and Joan as Everyman and Wife, the film knows there is something heroic about this couple, as there might be about any couple facing up to such a grave existential threat with reason and good humour. Having a man and a woman both before and behind the camera clearly helps Ordinary Love get the balance right, and the space afforded to the leads - they're the only players to get more than a handful of lines - frees them to do indelible, very moving work.

Neeson, most obviously, is liberated from all those inhuman actioners in which he goes round punching people out; you can't growl threats at a malignant melanoma. It's a skilfully calibrated performance, this: it starts out larky - a half-hour of dad jokes - but we witness a pronounced darkening of his features at the gravestone of the couple's late daughter. When we see Tom snapping at Joan for the first time a few scenes later, we realise it comes from a newfound insecurity, the creeping realisation he may have to spend next Christmas alone. Neeson is more vulnerable, perhaps more lovable here than he has been on screen for many years; the controversy that circled the actor circa February's Cold Pursuit suddenly feels a long time ago. Manville has the physical transformation to work with - the hair goes - yet there's nothing showy about this performance: instead, we watch a cheerfully outgoing woman turn inwards a little, and her quiet pluck brings us to tears. I know this: many British women who've battled or brushed up against breast cancer are going to find this performance very recognisable, even (especially?) when Joan admits to her surprise at the fact cancer hasn't changed her much. (Somewhere in the editorial: a suggestion of how ordinary cancer itself now is.) Lest it sound too painful, Leyburn and Barros D'Sa also factor in what's great about being in a relationship: the support, the tenderness, the sense of having someone to watch out for you. If the film is suffused with an idea of the ordinary, it also encompasses a lot of love - love born of life experience, however harsh that is. It is, finally, consciously ordinary, its restraint evident in everything from its gentle humour to the muted colour palette. Yet that title is typical of the film's honesty, and its makers know that, because of its proximity, what's ordinary often touches us in ways more spectacular, complicated and grandiose productions never can.

Ordinary Love opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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