A film review by Craig J. Koban May 20, 2020

ORDINARY LOVE jjj

2020, R, 93 mins.

Liam Neeson as Tom  /  Lesley Manville as Joan  /  David Wilmot as Peter  /  Amit Shah as Steve

Directed by Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn  /  Written by Owen McCafferty

I might be of the opinion that we have far too many cancer themed dramas for my tastes, with many - but not all - examples going for crude melodramatic sensationalism versus authentically rendered human drama.  

Directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's ORDINARY LOVE could be easily labeled as a "cancer drama," seeing as it concerns a couple's arduous trials and tribulations while navigating through the wife's sudden diagnosis of breast cancer.  Yet, what chiefly separates this film from so many countless others with similar narratives is in how penetratingly honest it feels in exploring a husband and wife tandem being forced to deal with a crushing medical blow to their lifelong marriage.  Plus, the screenplay by Irish playwright Owen McCafferty (his first) further explores the nature of how cancer struggles impact people on multiple levels, and especially on those that have already been dealing with a lifetime of hurt.   

The couple in question are Tom and Joan, beautifully and naturally played by the great Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville respectively.  As the film opens we're immediately settled into the ebbs and flows of their daily married lives, which may seem painfully ordinary to most viewers, but they nevertheless do an superb job of establishing their decades-old loving bond.  Tom and Joan are so fluid together as a couple that they can literally finish off each other's sentences with minimal fuss, and they oftentimes break through the most serious of moments with well played levity.  Humor is probably a required coping mechanism for them; they were dealt with the tragedy of losing their only child years ago.  Regardless, Tom and Jane seem relatively happy and well adjusted with each other, and they have found ways to get through their grief of having their child die.  On a positive, their intimate closeness was a by-product of not having a packed family unit on the home front for most of their lives. 

Their quaint marriage, though, is about to be turned upside down.  One day Joan senses something abnormal on her breast in the shower, and when she asks her husband to inspect it himself he also can feel an unusual bump.  Being extremely proactive and cautious, they go immediately to the doctor, who in turn runs a series of tests, with the first not 100 per cent locking down a benign diagnosis.  Unfortunately for Joan, she later finds out that she does indeed have breast cancer, which forces her and Tom to take the necessary offensive with the required treatment regiment, including multiple chemotherapy sessions.  Both try to acclimate to their new normal of fighting this disease head on, but even the previously unflappable Joan and headstrong Tom begin to fully understand the gravity of their situation, and it begins to cause a serious divide between the once inseparable and in-synch couple.  Tom in particular faces a unique challenge in terms of wanting to be a brave support network for Joan while having to deal with the potential outcome of losing his wife after losing his daughter.   

 

 

One of the things that holds ORDINARY LOVE from achieving true dramatic greatness is that the film simply traverses down many of the story beats that we've seen in countless other cancer themed dramas.  That's not to belittle the situations faced by cancer sufferers, mind you, but just that it's easy for viewers to have a sense of deju vu while watching this film, which covers many well covered notes: The initial discovery of something physically abnormal; the early tests that neither come back positive or negative; the nagging uncertainty of what's to come; the final positive diagnosis; the round after round of medically invasive procedures that ravage the patient's mind, body, and soul; and finally the mental strain all of this places on a family.  We've seen all of this played out in far too many past films to count, but what helps ORDINARY LOVE stand tall on its own is that it never feels cheap and maudlin, looking to methodically and shamelessly manipulate viewers.  D'Sa and Leyburn's film is extremely hard to watch in its warts and all portrayal of Joan's journey, not to mention that it finds stirring veracity in showcasing how cancer can affect more than just the one suffering from it.   

Tom and Joan clearly love each other dearly.  That much is abundantly clear.  But they're not squeaky clean or perfect, and ORDINARY LOVE does an exemplary job of showing how Joan's breast cancer journey has the unintended side effect of causing thorny issues for the once harmonious duo.  Joan is the one that's hurting the worst, and she has a right to feel the worst of the pair, but Tom is also dealing with his own different kind of anguish, and when he feels helpless to help her it boils over in unhealthy verbal outbursts between the pair that aids no one.  Complicating everything is the fact that they've both been through the absolute ringer already in having to bury their daughter.  ORDINARY LOVE is a cautionary reminder of how cancer can absolutely destroy the emotional well being of multiple parties and how the sufferer and supporter process different types of pain.  Tom specifically, like most spouses dealing with a loved one that may be dying, has problems to deal with, like fear and anger over his wife's potential death sentence followed by paralyzing self-loathing over having such feelings.  This film wisely reiterates to audience members the terrible nature of survival guilt.   

Still, Joan is the one with cancer, and her uphill battles are the largest ones to bare.  She has to deal with keeping her chin up to re-assure her worrying husband, but also has to come to grips with losing things that must be unspeakable for most women, namely their breasts because of the cancer (there's a remarkably sweet moment between the pair where their make love and pay a tribute, or sorts, to Joan's breasts before they have to be surgically removed).  ORDINARY LOVE is filled with such small little masterpieces of keen observation like this that gives the proceedings the look and feel of a documentary at times.  The opening stages of the story covers the most minute details of the pair's mundane daily rituals, which is crucial to relaying how much they're upended later.  I especially liked some of the story detours that pay off wonderfully, like an unexpected reunion, of sorts, between the couple and an ex-teacher of their dead daughter, Peter (well played by David Wilmot), who they discover is going through his own cancer horror show as well.  It's through Peter that Joan finds a connection to her disease to help her process it beyond her caring and well meaning husband.  ORDINARY LOVE rightfully and credibly speaks towards how how sick people often find unique outlets to gain understanding of their affliction through other sufferers.

The real main attraction of this film is the effortless chemistry between Neeson and Manville, who overwhelmingly make you believe that Tom and Joan have been a tight unit together for many years.  Their understated and unfussy work here does a bravura job showing this couple at their most warmly delicate and courageous while later shining a light on their heartbreaking conflicts.  Manville really puts on a thespian clinic here, making Joan come off as more than just a victim of a terrifying disease; she's convincingly strong willed and vigilant while also relaying the unspeakable terror she's obviously feeling.  On the flip side, Neeson is equally powerful here, and he gives his most serenely vulnerable performance in quite some time.  The Irish actor has spent so much time over the last decade-plus re-establishing himself as a middle-age kick ass action hero that it really becomes a welcome and refreshing surprise here to see him strip himself of that gruff, tough man facade and dig deep into this troubled soul that feels powerless to help his wife.  He has a crucial moment in the film where he has to discard a dead pet fish that's as perfectly acted as any in the film, where he becomes fully aware of his inability to stave off death in his life on many fronts.   

ORDINARY LOVE becomes more of a tale of maintaining nurturing intimacy and devotion between husbands and wives while facing massive obstacles than it does come off as an obligatory cancer survivor drama on autopilot that's looking to crassly milk tears out of our eyes.  The film is also more raw than I was expecting (it's certainly not a sugar coated portrayal of cancer), and it's also done with impeccable tact and understanding of what people go through when being faced with the high probability of dying.  And Neeson and Manville make up one of the most genuine and lovely on-screen couples in quite some time, and how wonderful is it to see a film like ORDINARY LOVE that's about elderly lovers well past their prime and approaching their twilight years, with their bond being portrayed with a stark immediacy that's usually reserved for much younger characters/actors in films?  This might be a drama painted with recognizable genre brushstrokes, but the portrait it places upon the canvas has a spirit of originality and a different prerogative, leaving ORDINARY LOVE in a far better place than most other made-to-order cancer-themed films.

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