Ordinary Love review: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson paint a portrait of love laced with hate

In which a malignant tumour cracks open the oppressively peaceful life of a suburban couple. Joan (Lesley Manville) discovers a lump in her breast. Her husband, Tom (Liam Neeson), tries to shoo her fears away. That premise will strike some people as dull. But spending time with Joan and Tom is like melting into a story by Alice Munro or Elizabeth Strout. Every unassuming detail contains multitudes.

Take the bit where we see Joan dangling asymmetrically from a mammogram machine, looking as contorted as one of Lucian Freud’s nudes. What pulls us into the moment is the politeness of her pained expression. Joan doesn’t trust herself around strangers. Even when she’s not being watched, she’s on best behaviour.

Slowly, we realise this has something to do with the death of the couple’s daughter, whose graduation photo has pride of place in their stolid Belfast home. How Debbie died is a mystery. The impact of her absence couldn’t be more tangible.

The pair have no friends. It’s only while having chemo that Joan lets someone new into her life. As she does so, it becomes clear that she and Tom’s loving relationship is laced with hate. Manville has given us many searing performances over the years. But this is special. Her eyes, as bright as the blue eggs of a robin, have never been used to such shocking effect.

Without director Paul Thomas Anderson she might never have got the part. She’s been more bankable ever since he created the juicy role of Cyril Woodcock for her in A Phantom Thread, for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination.

Manville is as distressingly good here as Julie Christie was in Away from Her. And Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years. Both actresses got Oscar nominations for those roles. Hollywood, in other words, “gets” well-behaved (and complicated) British wives. But Manville’s different to Christie and Rampling. Those two have been household names since their twenties. Were Manville to get a best actress nomination, it would be a victory for middle-aged, so-called “character” actors, all those individuals not considered quite hot enough in their youth to command our stares. There’s no way Manville would win the prize.

Joan’s just too brazenly ordinary to become the belle of that ball. A nomination, though, would be swell.

Neeson is every bit as deserving. He’s quietly devastating as a grieving father and guilt-ridden spouse (just as he was in Widows). He was never actively bad in the Taken movies, but the big-daddy hi-jinks demanded so little of his hawkishly pretty face. He’s a natural comedian (his demented “bad cop” was the jewel in the crown of The Lego Movie). He’s the perfect person to play Tom, whose jowls collapse whenever there’s no one around to amuse.

Neeson is 67 and, unusually for him, is playing opposite an actress roughly his own age. Manville is 63 (the pair’s big sex scene together, which involves a “farewell” to Joan’s breasts, is simultaneously steamy, cosy and wry). It’s equally rare to see the Ballymena actor in Northern Ireland.

Practically the whole cast and crew, including playwright Owen McCafferty (making his screen-writing debut) are from Belfast. McCafferty has known composer David Holmes since they were 10 and both men live close to husband-and-wife directors, Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn. The project, on so many levels, celebrates long-haul intimacy.

Holmes once made an album called This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash the Seats. Very funny. You’ll feel nothing but fondness for your surroundings after watching this scaldingly fine romance.