The latest in the growing number of movies dealing with illness is “Ordinary Love”. But simply sticking that label onto this affecting drama would be both reductive and unfair. Co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leburn along with writer Owen McCafferty have more on their minds, namely exploring the ordinary life of a loving, devoted couple rocked by a cancer diagnosis and how they cope with it both individually and hand-in-hand.
“Ordinary Love” follows Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson), happily married for many years. The film looks at their lives together through a very still and natural lens. It follows the most ordinary of routines: breakfasts together, feeding their fish, afternoon walks, and evenings watching television. But when Joan discovers a lump in her breast their life journey takes an unexpected turn. Barros D’Sa and Leburn takes us through Joan’s breast cancer diagnosis, surgeries, and chemotherapy. Most importantly they plow the deep emotional ground, but with care and compassion.
The movie’s biggest strength is in how it thoughtfully examines the processes of both Joan and Tom in coping with the cancer. Manville is a force intensely committed to both the physical and emotional demands of her role. Through her we see Joan’s fear and uncertainty, but also resolution and strength. Neeson perfectly portrays the complexity of feeling men struggle with when in Tom’s situation. He’s great showing how men often try to mask their worry through optimism (“It’s nothing“, “Everything￼ will be fine“). He’s even better when that optimism gives way to denial and frustration. Most importantly it’s all handled without an ounce of melodrama or sentimentality.
Unfortunately the movie seems to lose some of its focus in the final act where it spends too many scenes focused on other people. They’re intended to introduce a coping method into the story that helps Joan and Tom navigate her illness. Instead it’s a tacked on narrative thread that feels more scripted than organic.
Also, despite the extraordinary chemistry between the two leads, we still never really get to know Joan and Tom. Do they have any family or friends? Do they have jobs or are they retired? What are their interests or hobbies? We learn they lost a daughter but how and how long ago is never shared. McCafferty’s script is heavily invested in walking us step-by-step through the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and after-effects. Not one single second of it feels false or unrealistic. At the same time the characters are fastened so tightly to the cancer storyline, there is little room for many personal details outside of it.
Yet “Ordinary Love” stays afloat thanks to Manville and Neeson, two seasoned actors with great emotional resonance and a natural chemistry. You can’t help but be touched by the sensitivity and humanity both bring to their roles. If only they were given deeper, fuller characters to explore. I can’t help but think about Michael Haneke’s brilliant “Amour”, a film that showed the harsh reality of illness while still coloring in its two leads with vivid, heartfelt detail.
VERDICT – 3 STARS