Long before Liam Neeson became one of the go-to guys for action-oriented films (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Batman Begins, and of course the Taken films), he was considered one of our most prominent and versatile dramatic actors—a status typified by his Oscar-nominated performance in Schindler’s List. Thankfully, as the Irish-born actor gracefully approaches 70, he’s returning to his roots as an actor not afraid to show his emotions and dive back into something a bit more substantive with roles in the recent Widows and his latest, Ordinary Love, in which he plays Tom, one half of a long-married couple whose relationship is tested when his wife, Joan (Lesley Manville, The Phantom Thread), is diagnosed with breast cancer.
Written by Owen McCafferty and directed by the team of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (Good Vibrations), Ordinary Love begins as a lovely profile of strong marriage. They are always tender with each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t verbally spar with some choice, very funny insults from time to time. Neeson and Manville sell us on this marriage from the first frame; this is a couple that knows each other so well that even the bone-chilling news about her health isn’t enough to break them, but it does shake things up a bit. Following them over the course of a year—through her diagnosis, surgery, and chemotherapy—the film shows how a serious condition like cancer has an impact on everyone close to the patient, and while the couple argue about both important and trivial things, the movie’s real joy is watching them readjust their respective attitudes and meet back in the middle to fight this thing together.
During the course of our time with them, we don’t really learn much about their history, except for one major, life-altering detail—they had a daughter who died young and unexpectedly, and they still haven’t, and likely never will, recover from that loss. They don’t shy away from talking about it from time to time, but the tragedy has left Tom especially vulnerable at the prospect of losing the only other person in his life that he truly can’t live without. As if to solidify the connection between Joan’s illness and the loss of their daughter, the couple run into one of the daughter’s old primary school teachers, Peter (David Wilmot), in the waiting room of the cancer ward, and Joan immediately strikes up a friendship with him. It turns out that Peter’s diagnosis is terminal and that his husband, Steve (Amit Shah), is not handling it well, to the point where he can’t bring himself to sit with him in the waiting room. At some point later in the film, Tom spots Steve in the cafeteria, and the two strike up a friendship rooted in commiseration.
Ordinary Love almost prides itself on avoiding sentimentality while still being a deeply emotional experience. As a pure acting exercise, I could watch Neeson and Manville sit in a room and do crossword puzzles together for days on end and still be hopelessly entertained. They’re simply that good. It’s particularly interesting to watch how Neeson uses his body language to convey certain feelings. He towers over Manville, conveying a protective presence in her life, but he also appears slighter, less puffed out. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures—he likes his European football with a beer—but even he would admit there’s nothing exceptional about him outside of the love he has for his wife. Their capacity for survival and devotion seems limitless, but they are also realists when it comes to bigger questions of what happens if Joan doesn’t make it through some aspect of her recovery.
Tom and Joan love to swear, and it’s sometimes very funny, but often it’s a sign that something deeper is at play. Ordinary Love isn’t a movie about plot; it’s about observation. We are simply meant to watch, take it all in, fall under the spell of what this couple shares, and be helplessly pulled into their lives while becoming fully vested in how things turn out. And that’s exactly what happens. When all is said and done, you’ll likely be glad—even grateful—that this pair strolled into your unsuspecting life. You may even take a bit of inspiration from their rough road.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!