Playwright Owen McCafferty wrote “Ordinary Love” after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. The experience inspired the semi-autobiographical story as a couple played by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville undertake a similar journey.
It’s refreshing to see Neeson in a drama where he doesn’t kill dozens of thugs and Manville who was Oscar-nominated for “Phantom Thread” is outstanding as the courageous wife who discovers a lump in her left breast.
The well-crafted film directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn is an honest and moving portrayal of a couple battling cancer played by two superb actors who appear on screen together for the very first time.
Neeson and Manville play retired couple Tom and Joan living in Northern Ireland in a home with wood paneling that screams grandma’s house. The two exercise daily by going on walks together. Tom drinks beer and watches television while Joan cooks. Now and then, she’ll spice up a meal by throwing in a secret ingredient, which Tom has to identify. It’s a comfortable life for a couple that has been married for a long time. How long? We’re not really sure, but long enough to realize there’s no sense in arguing about trivial matters. At this stage, any bickering is a form of affection.
When Joan discovers a lump in her left breast, Tom shows no signs of alarm. He remains optimistic as always and in a calming manner, assures his wife that a quick trip to the doctor will confirm that there’s nothing to worry about. Of course, he’s wrong and Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer. But Tom remains a vigilant optimist assuring Joan that he’ll be by her side every step of the way.
Manville and Neeson are so great to watch even in scenes where there’s no dialogue. It’s amazing to watch these fine actors use their bodies and facial expressions to convey their feelings. In one scene, the doctor confirms Joan’s tumor is cancerous. Manville reacts to the news by remaining fixated on her physician, never blinking, her gaze straightforward, and at that moment we know that she is mentally preparing herself for battle. We see her courage come to the forefront without so much as a blink of an eye from the actress who’s known for her terrific work with director Mike Leigh.
In that same scene, Neeson reacts to the doctor’s news by bowing his head to the right and looking down at the floor. It’s a small gesture that speaks loud measures. First, there’s disappointment, then fear, and then strength as Tom realizes what he must do, and all of those emotions are conveyed in a matter of seconds.
Joan and Tom seem so courageous at times when most of us would be letting our emotions take over, but this is not the first time this couple has faced tragedy. A picture on the mantle of their adult daughter reminds the two of the child they lost years ago. Some couples never recover after that kind of loss, but these two pulled through, so their reactions to Joan’s cancer is both authentic and understandable.
“Ordinary Love” doesn’t wallow in misery. Manville and Neeson are terrific together. When the pressure of dealing with chemotherapy, the pain and the toll the cancer begins to take on their lives overwhelms the couple they react as we all would, with anger and tears.
Yes, the mood is somber, and we feel sympathy for Joan and Tom, but don’t stop yourself from seeing this beautiful film because you feel the subject matter is too depressing. There’s no time for the audience to get depressed. We are too busy watching these great actors deal with cancer by supporting each other with love and strength.