Ordinary Love: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson star in this extraordinarily unsentimental film.
A January or February release — when half the country is either deep in hibernation, or worse, catching up on award-winners — has become the time of year designated as Hollywood’s dumping ground for films too good to shelve, but not strong enough to warrant a more desirable release date. And yet, the early months of the year have continually proven commercially and, on occasion, artistically successful for Liam Neeson (Taken, The Grey, Cold Pursuit). So here we are again, halfway through the trailer for the cancer drama Ordinary Love, and there’s not a wolf, kidnapped relative, or vengeful snow-plower within earshot. Just the Lesley Gore soundalike in my head, breaking into a chorus of, “And now it’s Liam’s turn to cry…”
Prepare to spend a year eavesdropping on the lives of Tom (Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville), a happily retired couple who first enter the picture in mid-constitutional. Their love is as rock steady as the tracking shot that introduces them, their exchange of small talk never forced or premeditated. Then, while Tom goes through the ritual of tearing down the Christmas trimmings, Joan detects a lump under her arm. It’s not as if Joan doesn’t take care of herself — her last mammogram was just eight months prior. But if the lump proved benign, we’d have a 10-minute Public Service Announcement on our hands. Her doctor thinks it’s nothing but an easily treatable cyst; were that the case, we’d have a 15-minute short.
Time spent worrying: the couple, seated in silhouette at the breakfast table when the letter arrives asking Joan to make an appointment for a mammogram. The letter strikes an ominous tone. The growth must be cancerous. Because besides maybe bringing drama (and a possible Emmy nomination) to a sitcom, what good is a twenty-two minute heart-tugger about a benign tumor?
Patients expecting same day results had best be prepared to have their patience tried. Sure enough, there’s a 3 in 5 chance that her biopsy will come back remediable. In Joan’s mind, 3 is a lot closer to 5 than it is 1. Expressing her concerns over lunch, Joan bluntly asks Tom, “What is going to happen if I have cancer?” It’s a tough query, one that calls into question the couple’s durability. But even if it has spread past its early stages, Tom assures her that they will do what they always have — work through it together. Before leaving for the hospital, the camera slowly pulls back from the couple’s empty bed. Will Joan last long enough to once again sleep in it?
The color design is purposely overpowering. The non-reflective shade of celadon green that once characterized hospital corridors have been replaced by bold tones of Michigan Mint blue. Any minute, one half-expected Edward Scissorhands to enter and start hashing away at our heartstrings, but false sentiment has no place in these surroundings. Working with first-time screenwriter Owen McCafferty, the directing team of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (Good Vibrations) find an oddball, honesty-driven sense of humor amid the darkness with which to unburden their characters. Is there anything more humiliating than a cancer patient having to pay for hospital parking? When Joan’s hair begins falling out in clumps, Tom reaches for the clippers, but not before she can request a beehive.
The “set-’em-up-to-watch-’em-die” nomen first came to me on the car ride home from La Bamba. The plane crash that claimed the life of Ritchie Valens opened the picture, and was followed by a 90-minute wait to relive the tragedy in its expanded glory. There is nothing more off-putting than turning a character’s mortality into a plot destination, or playing a mysterious guessing game as to the precise moment our stricken lead will check out. And while it’s easy to see why actors would be eager to undertake these roles, as powerful as Neeson and Manville are, one couldn’t help noticing that these were two highly attuned performers, not a couple that’s spent a lifetime together.
I have often questioned why anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer would want to pay $18 for the privilege of reliving the experience at their local multiplex. Wouldn’t a tension-relieving comedy make more sense? The good news is, Ordinary Love isn’t about dying as much as it’s a “set-’em-up-to-watch-’em-survive” story. A veritable primer on how to come through a crisis without being crushed under the weight of sentimentality. In Hollywood terms, there is nothing ordinary about this love story.
Landmark’s Ken Cinema to close its doors March 22
Has it really been six years since I stepped in and helped to save the Ken Cinema from the wrecking ball? On Sunday, March 22, Landmark Theatres will officially pull the plug on the Ken citing, “the changing theatrical landscape and challenges to independent exhibition (as) the major contributing factors.” To be fair, lackluster bookings and a refusal to spruce up the joint were contributing factors in the venue’s decline. This time, alas, there may be no reprieve.
I have reached out to Reading Cinemas and the Digital Gym to see if we can’t find a worthy heritor to the single-screen showplace, one that’s capable of keeping the doors open and operating in the black for decades to come. Join me in a moment of payer: Blessed are You, O Mr. Hitchcock, Ruler of the cinematic universe who has sanctified us with this humble neighborhood popcorn temple. May the name Ethan van Thillo be written in heaven as well as on the lease. And leave the booking to Moisés Esparza. Together, they turned a cozy space like the Digital Gym into destination cinema. Imagine what they could do to transform the Ken!
I’ll have much more to say next week. Keep everything crossed!