How do you say to someone, ‘Don’t die’?
Cancer is so often equated with death that it’s no wonder most films work towards that result when dealing with the subject matter. Not everyone dies, though. Many discover it early enough to have it removed without the need for additional operations. Some are a bit further along and must therefore confront the prospect of chemotherapy as a deterrent from complications. It’s different for everyone and the pain endured will always be there, but cancer stories can also be about life and love with a clear future still to come. That doesn’t mean death won’t remain perpetually visible regardless since not everyone else at the hospital or at the doctor is non-terminal. It just means that you can find worthwhile drama outside of its unavoidable nightmare.
Because this type of perspective inevitably pales in comparison to the box office draw of a compelling tragedy on paper, it helps that screenwriter Owen McCafferty could write Ordinary Love from experience. He and his wife know the struggle of coping with a breast cancer diagnosis and the hard days they had to brave to exit out the other side. They know what the specter of cancer does to daily routine and how something as commonplace as grocery shopping gets altered beneath its weight. How did their love and marriage survive? How did their fear grow and subside? How much loss did they share with those befriended along the way? These are the questions regular people want answered since they deal with the universality of the disease’s impact.
This is why everything directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn put on-screen feels authentic. It might be quiet as a whole, but that silence does plenty to highlight the individually explosive emotions their characters’ mundane actions trigger within highly volatile situations. The endearing back-and-forth bickering enjoyed by Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville) at the beginning can turn into a powder keg of frustration once the tense uncertainty of mortality transforms their dry humor into aggressive deflection. An unwavering sense of optimism when things might not be so dire seems patronizing once the risk of everything that’s occurring becomes more readily transparent. These two are going through this illness together, but neither can truly understand the other’s pain when they’re so busy going through their own.
Distance helps—even if born from a fight. Solace in strangers does too since Peter (David Wilmot as a former teacher of the couple’s late daughter) knows what having chemo in his veins means and his partner Steve (Amit Shah) the numbing futility of being forced to watch a loved one’s anguish without the power to stop it. They become a mirror with which Joan and Tom can use to acknowledge that they aren’t alone and a comparison point to remember their own prognosis could have been so much worse. On the flip side too, Tom and Joan’s knowledge of dealing with death years ago after the passing of their only child can help Peter and Steve know that life can go on in the face of calamity.
Ordinary Love thus proves itself to be a character study through and through. A couple quarrels pepper the action to heighten drama (their merit coming from the guilt and remorse of the aftermath), but so much of the film’s intrigue lies in the hidden emotions expressed in isolation and the masks worn to be strong for the other when together. There’s the moment where Tom must confront the possibility that he might be alone with the two women in his life gone on the same day his goldfish dies. And the moment when Joan is trying to calmly take in the words of her doctor as her husband interjects with indignation to steal a moment that should be hers to experience the way she wants.
Emotions run high until little personality ticks that used to cause jovial laughter suddenly pierce the flesh as though they’re needles. The love that placed them at each other’s side to cope with their child’s death now runs the risk of making them feel smothered by obvious attempts to pretend things are okay when they’re so clearly not. These tremors of anger and annoyance run just below the surface, threatening to rise at the most inopportune times so moments where closeness is desired are ruined by previous moments of wanting anything but. The title’s adjective “ordinary” couldn’t therefore be any more perfect since these contradictory feelings caught in a constant state of flux are so relatable. Not even the purest love can evade humanity’s inherent messiness.
Manville and Neeson are both wonderful whether times are good or bad. The slight smile punctuating their sarcasm is a delight and their vociferous mutterings an all too familiar sign of irritation born from a faulty sense of resentment conjured by debilitating fear. What’s more, however, is the skill at which D’Sa, Leyburn, and McCafferty refuse to shoehorn in moments of reconciliation. We don’t need them. The love Joan and Tom share is palpable during scenes of laughter and argument. We know they’ll make-up because we know their anger is a product of fatigue rather than animosity. Anyone who’s been in a relationship this close-knit knows that apologies aren’t even necessary in many instances. They’re implicit to the territory just like those cathartic fits of rage.
 Liam Neeson (left) as Tom and Lesley Manville (right) as Joan in directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s ORDINARY LOVE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / Bleecker Street
 Lesley Manville (center) as ‘Joan’ and Liam Neeson (right) as ‘Tom’ in directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s ORDINARY LOVE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / Bleecker Street
 Liam Neeson (left) as Tom and Lesley Manville (right) as Joan star in directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s ORDINARY LOVE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Bleecker Street