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‘Ordinary Love’: Cancer story offers plenty of emotion, not much insight

Despite strong performances by Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, the domestic drama offers little beyond recounting the steps of diagnosis and treatment.

Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson play husband and wife in “Ordinary Love.”
Bleecker Street

Don’t you just love it when people make it all about them when it comes to visiting a loved one in the hospital?

We’ve all heard it: “Ugh, I hate going to hospitals. They’re so depressing. I just … can’t.”

Shut up. Nobody LIKES going to the hospital. But after you visit a friend or a relative, YOU get to home and the patient has to stay. Put that in your perspective and smoke it.

Early on in “Ordinary Love,” Liam Neeson’s Tom delivers the “I hate hospitals” speech, practically shivering as he looks about a room filled with patients and says a gathering of so many sick people in one place can’t be good for anyone.

Yeah, except it’s a HOSPITAL, Tom.

That Tom says this to his wife Joan (Lesley Manville), as they’re waiting to find out if she has cancer, indicates he’s not always the most thoughtful or considerate husband in world history. But, like just about every other moment in this quiet, deliberately paced domestic drama from directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (from a screenplay by Owen McCafferty), Tom’s observations have the ring of truth and authenticity.

This is the most admirable thing about “Ordinary Love” — its pinpoint accuracy in capturing the small everyday highs and lows in a longtime marriage, as well as the sudden and unexpected vagaries.

It’s also the very reason I stop just short of recommending this film. Despite the finely calibrated performances from the two wonderful lead players and the occasional effectively moving moment, “Ordinary Love” focuses an almost documentary-style attention to the slow and sometimes excruciatingly painful grind of a cancer diagnosis and the subsequent surgical procedures and chemotherapy.

For anyone who has been through this life-shattering process, either as a patient or the partner, it will be all too familiar and, blunt as this may sound, all too repetitive. “Ordinary Love” gets everything right, but there’s almost nothing in the way of a major plot revelation or insightful flashback explaining certain elements from the past. It just proceeds from scene to scene, allowing us to eavesdrop on the lives of these two decent, comfortably connected life partners, and then it’s time for all of us to move on, and that’s that.

Joan and Tom are a retired couple in late middle age who live in a comfortable home in Belfast. (It’s a nice house, but it appears they haven’t updated the décor since about 1996.) They spend nearly every waking moment together, from their daily walks (they always take the same route, turning around when they reach a small tree near a construction site) to their meals to their nightly settling-in routines.

There’s a lot of playful, light bickering, especially on Tom’s part. Something as simple as Tom declaring he’s going to have an after-dinner beer, or a discussion about inviting a guest to Christmas dinner, inevitably leads to a game of verbal ping-pong that can be just a little bit exhausting — for Joan, and for us.

One day, Joan is in the shower when she finds a lump in her breast. She is concerned. Tom is concerned, too, but he says all the right things about how it’s probably nothing, and they’ll go to the doctor the next day, and it’s going to be all right.

Except it’s not.

Step by step, scene by scene, “Ordinary Love” takes us through Joan’s biopsy, operations and multiple chemotherapy sessions. Her hair starts to fall out. The medication doesn’t come close to muting her pain.

She gets the chills — and a moment later is desperately flinging off blankets and trying to cool down.

Tom is there for Joan, but the stress leads to the inevitable knockdown, drag-out fights, as when Tom complains about the pressure of going through this together, and Joan responds: We are not going through this TOGETHER.

We learn about a tragedy from the past, and we meet a terminal cancer patient named Peter (David Wilmot), a former teacher of Tom’s and Joan’s daughter. Joan only knew Peter in that meet-once-or-twice-a-year way a parent knows a child’s teacher, but now they become dear friends because each understands what the other is going through.

“Ordinary Love” has a static look, and by-the-numbers camera shots and editing. Most of the scenes are interiors, whether we’re in the home or the car or the hospital. And while the script never feels anything less than genuine and believable, there’s something a little bit stagey and underwhelming on a film that’s so heavily dependent on dialogue, it feels like it might have been more effective as a two-character play on a sparsely decorated stage.