Human beings are a naturally stubborn species. We like to think of ourselves as computers with hearts, arranging our day like a database with carefully manufactured functions and a predictable result at the end of each day. It’s viruses like cancer that send a shock wave into our system, reminding us of our limitless frailty.
“Ordinary Love” is a strongly-assembled and deeply moving film about how an older couple use their indelible love and bond to overcome a brutal breast cancer diagnosis. An honest portrayal of human beings adapting for an oncoming storm of dread that could dismantle their lives. Cancer doesn’t just attack the body, invading your cells and organs with a ferocity that is unmatched by everything not named heart disease; the disease can also go after the human spirit, the soul’s guardian angel.
Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville are equally tremendous as Tom and Joan, the kind of lovely husband and wife who bicker about fit bits, the amount of Brussels sprouts required for a dish, and whether or not one should drink a beer after a long walks. It is a long walk where we first meet this couple, ferociously dedicated to each other as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. It’s not like they don’t need anybody else to get their life on, but let’s just say the world is merely on standby.
The beautiful thing about Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s film is that they allow the seasoned actors to take Owen McCafferty’s warm yet honest script and work at their own pace. The camera setups and shots aren’t showy and don’t carry extra flash, instead painting a picture of foundation built over years spent together. Before the five minute mark is reached, you will feel comfortable with Tom and Joan, maybe even desiring a dinner party. She’s the forgivable yet sharp-willed one while Tom coats everything in his sight with cynical strokes of color and grace. He has a joke for everything. They kid each other often. But at the end of the day, it’s that loving acknowledgement that gets them by.
Barros D’Sa and Leyburn paint a blunt picture around the diagnosis and McCafferty’s script is nimble and fleet-footed about how it unfolds and the trials and tribulations that occur. The film takes place over the course of a year, starting with the packing of Christmas decorations and the unpacking of said items. While there is a definite order to the film, I admired the way that the film didn’t seem to have three isolated acts. We just spend a year with these folks and that’s it. It’s one of those life goes on kind of tales, and the movies needs more of those.
This isn’t a remake, sequel, reboot, re-imagining, or adaptation. There are no punches thrown, tears jerked out of the eye sockets, or superheroes in the waiting. There are no manufactured dramatic moments full of high-pitched music and relentless passion. There are no useless theatrics engineered to elicit a “please love me” reaction. “Ordinary Love” cuts straight to the bone and onto the heart without even trying. This is a very moving film that will stir something inside of you that should lead to one of those late night drives that will be shrouded in thought.
This is easily Neeson’s best work in years. He reminds you that before he put on the leather coat and made 45 action films, he was a great actor who commanded films such as “Schindler’s List,” “Michael Collins,” and “Rob Roy.” He’s always got presence and authenticity in his back-pocket, but he peels all of that masculinity back to show you a man faking the world out with clever humor to disguise his fear of mortality. He allows that wrinkle below his eye to dampen a bit and lets down the facade he built up after losing his wife in real life, Natasha Richardson. You can tell he pulled some ammunition from that rack of grief and tears to give Tom a multi-faceted warmth and truth. Wow, he’s so good.
Manville matches him beat for beat. You won’t notice the steel-hearted and chilly personality she nabbed an Oscar nomination for in “Phantom Thread,” but that should only admire her work here even more. Joan wants you to think she has it all together, and then her guard is let down and she shows a tender yearning for some positivity amidst the dark clouds of doubt. It’s one of those understated performances that jumps up and bites you during certain scenes. There’s a scene where Joan rails against Tom for all her pain, and it’s one of the most heartbreaking yet honest portrayals of cancer spreading its wings inside matrimony that you’ll see on film. It’s ruthless yet firm.
This film made me feel every emotion possible. I like where films can be moving without saturating you in sweetness, and afford themselves a powerful stature without beating you over the head with it.
I’d recommend this film to anyone: young, old, or undecided. It’s 85 minutes before the credits play, not wasting a second of your time. Nick Emerson’s editing is fierce and full of guile movements. David Holmes and Brian Irvine’s score supplements the film without borrowing its power. Nigel Pollock’s production design made me want to celebrate Christmas in that house. The movie has a very lived-in feel that lends extra strength to its story.
Breast cancer affects one out of eight women, but it reaches many more through their families. “Ordinary Love” doesn’t take that for granted, crafting an experience that should empower patients and survivors equally.
I’d urge you to see this film. The most unconventional romance film in quite sometime.