Liam Neeson's new film "Ordinary Love", opening Feb 14, contains some of his most accomplished screen work in years.
Playing a poleaxed husband who must help his wife, Joan (Lesley Manville), through the uncertain and harrowing process of breast cancer treatment, the stress they feel highlights the strengths and weaknesses of their long marriage.
Liam Neeson is so good as the terrified husband trying to overcome his own unspoken fear of loss that you'll find yourself wishing there had been more roles like this on his recent film acting slate, roles in which he can explore his vulnerability as well as his heroism.
The scene where he is moved to tears after discovering his pet goldfish has died (a grim foreshadowing of what might lie ahead) means he's already playing a man light years away from his humorless Taken role.
Neeson also plays Tom in his Irish accent, being another layer of authenticity to his role, because it's a character that looks and sounds exactly like Neeson himself.
The onscreen chemistry between Neeson, 67, and Manville, 63, is so strong you'll believe they've been married for decades. They have found such a seasoned couple's daily shorthand, such as a way of talking or not talking that communicates so much, so half the joy of this film is in its unusually mature depiction of a long and committed if admittedly sometimes troubled marriage.
These challenging themes, which may make the film a tougher sell in the USA this week. Death is the American kryptonite after all. No other country in the world spends as much money pointlessly trying to elude mortality, as if you could stop time by throwing money or cold cream or plastic surgery at it.
But 'Ordinary Love' asks us to stop whatever we are doing and simply look at two decent if flawed people as they try to make some sense of a senselessly cruel fate. It reminds us that we are all of us hanging by a thread. It brings death into the room and it unsettles us because we know that there but for the grace of God go we.
That's not the kind of subject that Hollywood often embraces, nor is it the kind of storyline that most American cinema-goers draw a big circle around and shout let's go. But it is the kind of film that pulls you out of all the noise of life and reminds you to focus on what makes it truly beautiful, and for that the Irish cast and crew are to be thanked.
As she grapples with her taxing cancer treatment, including the chemo that soon makes her lose her hair, Joan befriends a teacher called Peter (David Wilmot) who once taught her now-deceased daughter and who has since become a terminal patient himself.
Peter is gay and his partner Steve (Amit Shah) can not handle the fall out from his cancer treatments or the prospect of living on without him. As he confides about his life in Joan we begin to see him as a foil for the darker thoughts she's been having about where exactly her own path may take her.
As Tom befriends Steve it allows him to begin exploring Steve's terror as well as find the courage to approach his own. These are among the most affecting scenes in the film and in Neeson's recent film career. Both he and Manville underplay the horror they're confronting together and that makes everything in 'Ordinary Love' so much more unsettling.
Irish filmmaking duo Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (best known for the Belfast punk rock caper Good Vibrations) have the directing credits and the original screenplay was also written Irish playwright Owen McCafferty (best known for Scenes From the Big Picture). The film is economically written and directed and everything is always framed and filmed in service to the two main actors, who are increasingly impressive in their respective roles.
But perhaps the most unsettling thing about this beautifully directed and acted film is that it offers no easy answers, no thunderous monologues, no preachiness of any kind. Instead, it simply focuses on ordinary life, ordinary people and the extraordinary love that bonds them, which is a mystery at times even to themselves.
Neeson and Manville have created the most convincing portrait of a long marriage that I have seen on the big screen in the last two decades and it's their very normality and ordinariness that makes their plight so universal.
We don't learn where they live (it looks like Belfast) and we don't learn what it is they did or do for a living (they have a nice upper-middle-class house but how they maintain it without visible salaries is never explained). We don't know what their politics are or if they have any.
As I watched 'Ordinary Love' I thought that this kind of non-specificity was irritating and even aggressive. It was obvious early on that the film would be drilling down on the central issue that animates it: what is love and what will survive of it once the person you love is gone? But that does not necessitate or excuse the decision to overlook who this couple is and what they think.
Nevertheless, the central questions of 'Ordinary Love' are heady but rather good questions for a Valentine's Day movie to ask. Admittedly they're more mature than the kinds of questions that Hollywood usually asks us but 'Ordinary Love' has more ambition than your run of the mill weepie.
This isn't 'Terms Of Endearment,' it's much closer to a documentary in its faithful depiction of what happens when cancer is diagnosed. I won't spoil the film or reveal its ending to you, just suffice to say that it will do what it was crafted to and make you hold the ones you love a little closer.
'Ordinary Love' opens February 14.