Saturday, November 30, 2019

Ordinary Love – a triumph of restraint as script, direction, music and cast combine with the audience’s own insecurities (UK and Irish cinemas from 6 December)

Has a film ever been made before about Whiteabbey? Ordinary Love is a celebration of late sixties and early seventies Northern Ireland architecture with heavy wood panelling, ghastly pink and beige bathroom suites, exposed internal brickwork and chunky stone fireplaces. Was it every truly modern?

Joan and Tom take a purposeful stroll every evening down the Shore Road. Their lives are full of ritual, gently needling each other before retreating back into comfortable mundanity and talking about everything and nothing in the abstract. They eat chops that Joan takes out of the freezer. It’s like watching your parents up on the screen. Welcome to County Antrim!

The couple have been married for a long time, but the seeds of doubt are soon sown about their emotional and physical health. Discovering a lump in her left breast, Joan embarks on an unmapped journey through the health service that will put more than her body under the microscope.
“All I know is it felt serious.”

Lesley Manville plays Joan as a woman who is down but not out. We watch her despondency, her confusion, her narkiness, her coming to terms with treatment and its side effects. The character is written with an inner strength that never quite breaks.
“I just can’t tell her how frightened I am.”

Meanwhile we see a very different side to the normal bullish Liam Neeson. Tom isn’t an alpha male, or an aggressor. He’s a broken man who grieves the death of his daughter and with the sceptre of further loss hanging over his family, he bottles up his anxiety about the woman he’s come to rely on and takes for granted. Add to that a smidgeon of casual sexism, and you have a classic Northern Ireland emotionally reserved man.

Growing up among a couple of generations of medics must have stood co-director Lisa Barros D’Sa in good staid to bring the well-meaning but confusing and dignity-stripping nature of the health service to the fore in the story. Along with Glenn Leyburn, she creates moments of great isolation and loneliness (often in waiting rooms) along with scenes of warmth and intimacy (as Joan allows Tom to sort out her hair loss) as we spend a year in the life of a breast cancer patient.
“On top of everything I’m going through, I’ve got to cope with you.”

Owen McCafferty is well versed in writing about tragedy and Belfast. While Ordinary Love is his first screenplay, it doesn’t feel overly theatrical, and uses silence to tell the story as much as clever words and neat situations. Sure, there’s symbolism in the death of a goldfish, but it’s not laboured. Piers McGrail’s cinematography is full of long tracking shots down corridors, along roads and through scanners. The sense of unstoppable wordless movement is amplified by the rich soundtrack from David Holmes and Brian Irvine. Creatively, it’s an ensemble success.

Half-way through the 90-minute film, another couple (David Wilmot and Amit Shah) are introduced, reflecting some of Joan and Tom’s worries and behaviours back at them. In a theatre script, McCafferty might have been compelled to bounce between the two families much earlier in the show; but here on film they are dropped in gently and we find out whether there room in Joan and Tom’s seemingly empty house and somewhat empty lives for other people.

The restraint of Ordinary Love is its triumph. Neeson and Manville don’t have to chew the scenery in order to act their socks off. It’s about tone. It’s about building on the audience’s own insecurities and family – or even personal – experience of cancer. It’s about quietly offering up the big unspoken philosophical questions in the midst of coping with what life throws at us.

Ordinary Love is released in UK and Irish cinemas on 6 December. The 6.20pm screening on Monday 9 December in the Queen’s Film Theatre will be followed by a Q&A with directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn.

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