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Posts Tagged ‘Lesley Manville’

Off to the cinema, just for a change – it gets me out of the house when I’m not working, if nothing else.

‘One for Ordinary… erm… Life?’ I requested, finding myself struggling to recall the exact wording of the title.

Ordinary People,’ chimed in the cinema manager, with (as it turned out) a wholly unwarranted aura of cheerful confidence.

Ordinary Love,’ said the minion actually operating the ticket apparatus.

Well, if we could agree about one thing, it was that the film was certainly ordinary. I do wonder if the people who name films often think ahead to the possible consequences of some of their choices. There’s a good reason why no-one, to my knowledge, has released a movie called Complete Trash. Would Ordinary Love prove to be quite as unremarkable as its title suggested?

One way to find out: off up to the theatre (probably the smallest in Oxford) which remained almost entirely unoccupied and annoyingly over-illuminated for the next couple of hours (but then it was a midweek lunchtime showing). Then it was time for my theory that you can get a pretty good sense of what a movie is going to be like from the trailers running in front of it to take a bit of a kicking, as we were treated to yet another promo for the new Jumanji film (currently the recipient of the saturation publicity treatment, in the hope of prying a few viewers away from the looming stellar conflict juggernaut), a potentially-gimmicky looking film about the First World War, and no fewer than three trailers for social justice movies about the black experience in contemporary America.

None of which really had much in common with Lisa Sarros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s film, which concerns a married couple living (it would seem, not that it particularly matters) somewhere in Ulster. This is a bit of a case of big stars carrying a modest movie, as they are played by Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. They are retired (although I found myself imagining that Neeson would still occasionally pop out to deliver the odd vengeful beating to a deserving target) and live a comfortable life in every sense of the word: they are not especially demonstrative, but then there is no reason for them to be. Manville and Neeson evoke this atmosphere of relaxed, easy intimacy superbly.

And then, of course, something changes: Manville’s character, Joan, discovers a lump in one of her breasts. Quite sensibly she and Tom (Neeson’s character) decide to get it checked out. Initial tests are inconclusive, but the definitive news, when it comes, is bad (as one might expect, given that ‘woman turns out not to have cancer’ isn’t much of a premise for a movie). She is prescribed surgery, then a gruelling course of chemotherapy, and then further preventative surgery at the end of it all. It is a hard road, and one which inevitably puts a strain on what initially seems like the unshakeable bond which they share.

So, obviously, this is not exactly escapist entertainment (or, if it is, I shudder to imagine what your personal situation must be like). No matter how well made it is, one has to wonder what the point of yet another cancer movie is: God knows there have been enough of them in the past, after all. Is it just a case of this being a calculated pact between performers and film-makers? This is the kind of film where the performances attract awards attention, while such a determinedly low-key movie would probably struggle to even get noticed without stars of the calibre of Neeson and Manville raising its profile.

And there is a further point to be made, probably. One has to be fairly lucky these days, I think, not to feel the baleful touch of King Crab upon one’s own life: my own tally includes two aunts, one uncle and a cousin. But it is one of those experiences which is both near-universal and deeply personal at the same time – it is different for everyone, simply because so much depends on the personalities and relationships involved. Furthermore, many films about cancer are not cancer films, they are films about Movie Cancer – a usefully vaguely-defined disease, which usually leaves the afflicted party looking very photogenic right up until their passing becomes imminent, or they reach the hump of their treatment and then make a fairly brisk recovery. Perhaps melodrama is just the default setting for this kind of movie – making any other kind of statement is very difficult, as the more general the message you try to put across, the greater the danger of just saying something glib or facile.

Most of the time, Ordinary Love manages to dodge this particular problem, by being effectively understated and low-key and concentrating on presenting a believable relationship between the two main characters. Most of the movie is essentially a two-hander, one long conversation between Manville and Neeson: and they don’t spend the whole time talking about terminal diseases, either. They talk about brussel sprouts, and feeding their goldfish, and how much beer he’s drinking; they argue about how a Fitbit works. The fact that they don’t discuss the cancer says as much as any protracted dialogue scene could achieve. And when the strain takes its toll and they do argue with each other, you feel it all the more: it has that horrid sense of how people who love each other know the best way to hurt each other, too.

And yet the film blows it, just a little bit, by inserting a subplot about their past: it transpires they had a daughter, who died young, some years earlier. The details are left intentionally vague, but it just feels like something that’s been added to give the characters one more thing to emote about. The film ends up presenting a rather eggy scene with Liam Neeson delivering a monologue to a gravestone that feels slightly corny and rather out-of-character for the man he is playing here. It does risk tipping the film over into melodrama: living with cancer is something many people can relate to, but being hit by cancer after losing a child pushes things slightly towards Book of Job territory.

It’s a shame, because this is the only real blip in an otherwise strong movie. Its success is mostly down to the leads. You almost feel a bit sorry for Lesley Manville, for she has spent most of her career being quietly excellent in films not entirely unlike this one, and praise for her performance may well include words like ‘naturally’ and ‘characteristically’. Liam Neeson, on the other hand, has spent so much time appearing in head-banging action movies over the last decade or so that one is wont to forget just what an effective and understated serious actor he can be. (Maybe he should give Lesley Manville the phone number for Luc Besson.) Perhaps he gets a slightly showier part, but this is still solid work in an impressive movie. Ordinary Love is more than good enough to justify its own existence, and manages to make its theme simple enough to be easily communicated, but not so simple as to be worthless. A fine piece of work.

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I suppose we shouldn’t make the distinction between an artist’s process, product, and productivity, but I can’t help it I’m afraid. I accept that spending twenty years on a brilliant, perfect novel is a worthwhile pursuit – how could it not be? – but my personal admiration really goes to people who crank out two or three pretty good books or films every year. Perhaps it’s just because my own creative impulse tends towards a long, drawn-out process, deeply influenced by my massive innate laziness. Hey ho. Perhaps as a result of this, I’ve never been a fully paid-up member of the Daniel Day-Lewis fan club, largely because he seems to me to take a rather precious attitude to his job. Give me someone like Michael Caine, who in the Eighties would turn up in any old rubbish just because he liked to keep working, any day.

Oh well. My days of being chased down the street by outraged mobs for daring to criticise Day-Lewis for being so pernickety about his roles may be coming to an end, anyway, as the great man has apparently announced his retirement from acting, following the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. (So much for my hopes of one day seeing him play Dr Doom in the proverbial good Fantastic Four movie.) If this indeed marks the last we see of him, he is at least departing the stage in some style and with a degree of appropriacy.

In Phantom Thread Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a high-society dressmaker in the London of the 1950s. He is the creative spirit at the heart of the House of Woodcock (is Anderson aware this sounds vaguely and inappropriately amusing? Hmmm), with his intimidating sister (Lesley Manville) handling the business and organisational aspects of the business.

Following the successful completion of an important commission, Woodcock goes on a short break in the country, where he encounters and instantly smitten by Alma (Vicky Krieps), who when he meets her is working as a waitress. She is captivated by the attentions of such a wealthy, distinguished and creative man, and soon moves to London to be a part of his life.

However, we are already aware that Woodcock is something of a serial monogamist, having seen him getting his sister to expedite the departure of a previous flame at the start of the film. Once his initial ardour cools somewhat, however, Alma finds living with Woodcock to be increasingly difficult – he is demanding, discourteous, given to black moods, and strongly objects to any disruption to the routines with which he has surrounded himself. It seems inevitable that their relationship is doomed – but perhaps Alma has strong feelings of her own about this, not to mention plans of her own…

Well, as I have mentioned here in the past, I became a lifetime member of the Paul Thomas Anderson fan club the first time I watched Magnolia, an almost-inconceivable 18 years ago, and with Phantom Thread it is a pleasant surprise to come across a film of his which is (after a couple of impressive but challenging-to-watch offerings) genuinely accessible and satisfying. The story is relatively simple, but the film nevertheless raises some complex issues: Woodcock’s talent is undeniable, but does this justify him being quite so callous towards everyone around him? Isn’t this just another story about a privileged man being enabled in his pampered lifestyle by the women around him? At first it seems so, but then things become more ambiguous. The third act of the story sees events take a deeply surprising, and indeed rather twisted turn, but there’s no sense of the film taking a particular moral stand, and it’s never completely dour or heavy – there are regular moments of black comedy, usually courtesy of Woodcock’s acid tongue. Anderson evokes the period setting with his usual skill, and there is a memorable and effective score from Jonny Greenwood, too.

It is, of course, driven along by Day-Lewis, who brings all his intensity and charisma to the role. One can see why he has been nominated for so many awards for this performance; then again, he could wander by in the background of a scene and probably still get an Oscar nod. I find it a little surprising he even took this part, to be honest, given he’s to some extent playing a version of himself – an intensely driven artistic talent, who gives himself over completely to his work, uncompromising with those around him. There’s even a sequence where Woodcock hallucinates the presence of his dead mother, which can’t help but recall the fact that Day-Lewis retired from theatre work after seeing a vision of his dead father while appearing on stage.

That said, it’s not surprising that Lesley Manville has also been picking up nominations for her work as Woodcock’s sister, for she is also extremely good. The thing which is somewhat baffling is that Vicky Krieps has not likewise been showing up on awards shortlists, for the film is largely a two-hander between her and Day-Lewis and she is every bit as convincing and memorable, giving a rather less mannered performance as well. It may just be that she’s effectively a newcomer as far as Anglophone audiences are concerned, and awards are to some extent decided by your body of work as much as any single performance. (Filling out the mostly-British supporting cast are quite a few familiar and somewhat unexpected faces – people like Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson and Julia Davis all make appearances.)

This is a quiet, rather intense film, which does venture into quite dark and peculiar territory as it continues, and this may be why it doesn’t seem to have set the box office on fire – it’s only lasted about a week in the cinemas where I live, which is usually a sign of a movie which is essentially tanking. This was obviously intended as Oscar-bait rather than a prospective blockbuster, but it’s still a bit of a shame to see such a thoughtful and accomplished film failing to find an audience. Well worth seeking out, if you get the chance.

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