Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn are the two film-makers who in 2013 directed Good Vibrations, a tremendous film about the 70s Belfast punk scene. Now they have changed the mood for this desperately poignant study of a retired middle-aged couple, Joan and Tom, who have, over the years, come to terms with the deep sadness in their hearts following the death of their daughter. Now their fragile relationship is further tested when Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer. Is it too much to bear? Or has their existing grief somehow partly numbed, or inoculated them against the more commonplace pain of getting cancer in your 60s?
The movie is written by Owen McCafferty and acted with impeccable intelligence and sensitivity by Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. And although there are some slightly stereotypical weepie moments, the film has a strong sense of emotional purpose and Manville and Neeson – perhaps especially Manville – bring conviction and force. It is, perhaps, something we have all seen before in the movies when a character goes to talk to the gravestone of a departed loved one. But this film does something different with the trope when the couple are in the car and Tom announces that he is going to the cemetery. Joan, with deadly seriousness, tells him not to mention her cancer: “I don’t want her to know.”
Ordinary Love is a film with a cloud-cover of ordinariness. Cinematographer Piers McGrail gives it a stark, flat light: subdued in the couple’s kitchen and dining room, and also on the seafront where they go for daily, healthy walks, Tom genially obsessing over his Fitbit and the number of steps he has taken – but a stronger and more clinical light in the hospital.
Over the years, the couple have got comfortable with a kind of endless, soft-edged banter; it’s a language they have developed for amiable co-existence, and of course it crumbles in the face of Joan’s awful news, replaced with anger, recrimination and fear.
There is a horrible, and all too real, choreography of agony when Tom and Joan are placidly seated in the hospital waiting area and Tom announces he needs to go to the lavatory; Joan testily tells him not to be long, because her name could be called at any moment – and course it is, the moment Tom has gone. The uneasy, uncomfortable wait for Tom to return from the loo so they can all troop in to see the doctor is an ordeal of banal embarrassment. But there is a kind of redemption when the couple unexpectedly see someone they know – and dislike – in the waiting room.
There are, arguably, scenes in this film which are less than subtle – and there were times when I wanted something more indirect. But Manville and Neeson have a real empathy and intimacy on screen. Perhaps it is partly Manville’s presence, which reminded me a little of Mike Leigh, in films like Another Year. A sweet, sad film.
Ordinary Love is showing at the Toronto film festival with a release date yet to be announced