ORDINARY LOVE ½
2020, R, 93 mins.
Liam Neeson as Tom / Lesley Manville as Joan / David Wilmot as Peter / Amit Shah as SteveDirected 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.
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.
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
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
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.