Synopsis – An extraordinary look at the lives of a middle-aged couple in the midst of the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis.
My Take – Nowadays a film starring Liam Neeson usually means he is exacting vengeance on someone for wronging his offspring. However in this film, directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, he reminds us once again why he doesn’t need to punch someone to be a powerhouse on screen. Paired with the effortlessly wonderful Leslie Manville, here, they maintain modest ambitions by tackling a melodramatic subject matter with uncommon quiet elegance, while pushing it to surprising affecting heights.
Based on a screenplay by the Northern Irish playwright Owen McCafferty whose own wife underwent breast cancer treatment, at first glance, the film is exactly what one would expect, a portrait of mundane, turbulent and beautiful love. But beyond this immediate diagnosis is something far more rich and compelling i.e. a story of everyday love between two people living in the shadow of grief, facing an uncertain future, both together and apart.
The films’ grounded, and feels as close to real as possible, an honest and moving exploration of love that never seems heightened or false.
Set in Belfast, starting one from Christmas to the next, the story follows Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson), a retired married middle aged couple, who have lived many years of domestic bliss. Although they’ve experienced a great sadness, in the form of the loss of their young daughter, now their world is in each other and they are content with that. They have their routines, like their brisk evening walk, and they still make each other laugh. That is until Joan discovers a lump in her breast.
Diagnosed with breast cancer, their comforting ease of their daily lives is thrown into disarray after doctors prescribe a rigorous battery of treatments for Joan, including surgery and chemotherapy, testing their individual fortitude even as it deepens minor rifts in their relationship. While Joan finds solace in a fellow cancer patient, Peter (David Wilmot), a former teacher of their daughter, Tom attempts to preserve and maintain the life and lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed. But over the course of a year, they inspire new hope, patience and resilience in their relationship, and rekindle a sense of connection to and with the outside world they’d foregone in favor of focusing on each other.
What ensues is a rigorous, unflinching portrait of Joan’s surgery and treatment, as her illness in turn threatens to upend a longtime bond that turns out to be not so easily broken. We follow Joan from diagnosis through to chemo and reconstruction, the film at no point no more moving than in a love scene that makes clear a bond so deep that it extends well beyond the physical. Here, the film paints a portrait of quiet resilience that can be quite endearing, and even inspiring.
When Joan begins chemotherapy, the film does not shy away from showing the loss of hair and other distressing side effects of the taxing treatment, such as the way the pain makes her uncharacteristically irritable and impatient.
Meanwhile, Tom sticks by her side, never doubting his love for Joan for a second. The experience does not throw a spanner in the works of their relationship in the way so many films have portrayed before, and instead of neglect and bitterness, Tom only has care and attention to lavish upon her.
Although it comes at the expense of more conventional dramatic ups and downs, this is a film that looks very intensely, and delicately, at the tiny, wonderful moments of familiarity between two people that come after years and years together. Tom’s default style of engagement is a dry humor leavened with tenderness; Joan’s wry, fleeting exasperation conceals irrepressible warmth.
They understand and accept the comfort of this dynamic as a reflection not quite of a status quo but healthy ordinary interaction that reassures them everything’s alright. They both grow over the course of the film, more in a collection of minor ways than a single significant leap in perspective, an arc that perfectly and realistically reflects their age.
The elegant cinematography, with warm colors and rich textures, as well as the minimalist score, underline the gentle and graceful nature of the relationship, and every minor argument sharply stands out from the usually harmonious ensemble.
Unfortunately though, the script occasionally stumbles. While the film beautifully shows the virtues of taking it one day at a time, its lack of dramatic tension eventually gives the film a rather sentimental tone. Its good intentions are irredeemably tarnished when it lazily resorts to the clichéd narrative device where the possible outcome of actual death does not, of course, happen to the lead couple, but to another one on the periphery of their lives.
That the couple happens to be gay feels like a trick to make us sympathize with Joan and Tom, but at the end of the day, it is just another instance of the tragic death of a gay man used for the benefit of a straight story.
Luckily, the chemistry between Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson is powerful enough to keep you hooked. Neither overshadows the other in their performances, instead perfectly in sync and given room for their characters to be heard individually. While, Manville injects a sharp independence into Joan, while also a deep seeded vulnerability at the possibility of losing it. Neeson, meanwhile, perfectly nails his petty annoyances that are in reaction to Joan’s volatile emotional state. In smaller roles, David Wilmot and Amit Shah too are effective. On the whole, ‘Ordinary Love’ is a heart-breaking and ultimately uplifting love story told profoundly and honestly rather than cloyingly or sentimentally.
Rated – R
Run Time – 92 minutes