Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville are excellent in “Ordinary Love.” (Courtesy Bleecker Street)

‘Ordinary Love,’ ‘And Then We Danced’ at the movies

Performances shine in stories about cancer, romance

A post-Valentine’s Day movie for grown-ups and realists, “Ordinary Love,” opening Friday at the Embarcadero, follows a retired Belfast couple through a cancer diagnosis and its subsequent treatment. Stellar lead performances make the film noteworthy, but they can’t entirely obscure the drama’s routineness as a marital and disease story.

Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, whose joint credits include the punk-music-themed “Good Vibrations,” and writer Owen McAfferty, whose screenplay reflects his wife’s experience with breast cancer, cover a year in the lives of 60ish protagonists Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson), who reside in a cozy house in Northern Ireland. The pair have an ordinary life: daily walks near the waterfront, grocery-shopping outings, TV viewing at night.

They also bicker, old-married-couple style, about things like Joan’s tendency to buy too many Brussels sprouts or Tom’s fondness for sugared tomato juice. Perhaps these petty quarrels help them avoid thinking about darker subjects, like the years-ago death of their daughter.

A new challenge arises for the couple when Joan discovers a lump in her breast. Doctor visits, increasingly invasive tests, diagnoses, surgery and chemotherapy sessions with nasty side effects follow.

The situation strains Joan’s relationship with Tom. She’s realistic about the seriousness of cancer; he, afraid to admit he’s scared, puts forth a rosy optimism. When Tom tells Joan that the two are navigating the cancer straits together, she angrily disagrees: She’s sick; he’s not. She’s alone on this journey.

Supporting characters include terminally ill Peter (David Wilmot) and his distressed partner, Steve (Amit Shah). Joan becomes friends with Peter, who used to be one of her daughter’s teachers.

The filmmakers get some things right. They avoid sentimentality and keep the emotion real. They give two fine actors space to shine.

Touching and amusing as the clunky but caring husband, Neeson reminds us how compelling he can be when playing a nonviolent regular guy.

But this is foremost Joan’s story and Manville’s movie, and the Mike Leigh alum is extraordinary as she presents her character as a complicated and nuanced blend of courage, confusion, fear, and, sometimes, foolishness. The anxiety Joan conveys when getting cancer-screened, the ill-temperedness she displays when in pain, and the good-humored attitude she adopts when tossing off her ugly wig are dead-on real and captivatingly human.

The rapport of the two stars, as they illustrate the deep-down love Joan and Tom share and the couple’s sometimes screwy way of showing it, yields some sparkling moments. An erotic scene in which Joan and Tom say goodbye to Joan’s breasts is especially memorable in that regard.

At the same time, however, the filmmakers’ focus on the mundane has resulted in an overall picture too generic to do justice to the complex characters Manville and Neeson have created.

Joan’s journey plays like a cancer-movie checklist — hair loss, vomiting, a supporting character’s death. A dream Joan has while under anesthesia also is cliched.

In the end, it’s underwhelming. These actors deserve a chance to move us profoundly.


Ordinary Love

Two and a half stars

Starring: Lesley Manville, Liam Neeson, David Wilmot, Amit Shah

Written by: Owen McCafferty

Directed by: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn

Rated R

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Bachi Valishvili, left, and Levan Gelbakhiani appear in “And Then We Danced. (Courtesy Lisabi Fridell, Music Box Films)

“And Then We Danced,” set in conservative Georgia, spotlights that country’s traditional dance, and condemns the masculinity standards and homophobia ingrained in the institution, through the story of a young dancer’ssexual awakening. While it might benefit from bolder storytelling and fewer genre cliches, the film, opening Friday at the Embarcadero, captures the thrill of first love and embraces rebellion against outworn norms winningly.

Written and directed by Sweden-based Levan Akin (“Certain People”), who has Georgian roots, the drama transpires in the capital city of Tbilisi and in the world of Georgian traditional dance, a source of national pride, but with rigid concepts of masculinity.

Protagonist Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) challenges those attitudes. A trainee with the National Georgian Ensemble who lives in poverty (an ongoing theme), the lean, lithe Merab, with his sinuous, sensual movements, displeases hard-line instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze). Be “like a nail,” Aleko says, deeming Merab “soft.”

Sex doesn’t exist in Georgian dance, Aleko tells Merab and his longtime dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili) — a statement Merab will soon prove false.

The arrival of Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a new company dancer with a muscular build, a confident air and an earring (which Aleko immediately orders Irakli to remove) launches Merab’s self-discovery journey.

Despite some initial rivalry, Irakli shares dance tips with Merab, and his glances fill Merab with desire. Merab can’t stop smiling. His grandmother fears he’s gone daft.

At a gathering hosted by Mary at her parents’ country home, the two men become lovers.

Mary, aware of the relationship, fears Merab could end up like a dancer they once knew, whose life was ruined after his homosexuality was discovered.

Merab won’t retreat, though. He relishes his liberation, and, tracked by Lisabi Fridell’s in-sync camera, he expresses his joy through movement.

Akin’s depiction of Merab’s awakening is on the tame side, and cliched plot ingredients — an injured foot, an important audition, dancing in the moonlight, coming-of-age heartbreak — also are problematic.

With the semi-exception of Merab’s irresponsible brother (Giorgi Tsereteli), who has a terrific late-inning scene, supporting characters (including Merab’s separated former-dancer parents) are underdeveloped.

Nonetheless, the film is a radiant coming-of-age romance that stirringly celebrates self-expression.

Gelbakhiani, a dancer, is commanding and magnetic. When Merab is in love, his every move conveys elation. The film’s climax boasts a knockout display of defiance.

A scene in which he’s shirtless, wearing a humongous woolly hat and dancing to a recording of Swedish pop artist Robyn’s “Honey” is particularly memorable.

Gelbakhiani and Valishvili share essential chemistry, though Irakli seems largely a catalyst role.

Akin also delivers a vivid dose of Georgian culture — singing, food and LBGT nightspots — in addition to dance. More darkly, nearby locals issue homophobic slurs.

And with its underlying message about the need for Georgians to address homophobia in their country, the movie also impresses as a quietly political drama.


And Then We Danced

Three stars

Starring: Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili, Ana Javakishvili, Giorgi Tsereteli

Written and directed by: Levan Akin

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Also recommended: In “Beanpole,” opening Friday at the Opera Plaza, Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov creates a bleak, brutal 1945-set melodrama involving two female friends who have survived the siege of Leningrad. Tall, thin veterans-hospital nurse Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), aka Beanpole, experiences combat-related “frozen” spells. Manipulative, wild-eyed Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) has her own story to tell. The loss of a child binds them. Featuring adept, unhurried storytelling and top-rate lead and supporting performances, the film proves both disturbing and engrossing as it considers experiences of women in war (and men as well) and illustrates the desperate ways in which survivors handle the damage.

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