Written by Owen McCafferty and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, Ordinary Love is a poignant, heartfelt film, detailing the extraordinary ordinariness of dealing with a serious illness. Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) are the ‘normal people’ of the original title, a middle-aged couple who’ve been together all their adult lives. It’s a decade since their daughter died, and they’re coping, kind of, although they seem to have retreated into their dark, quiet, Northern Irish coastal home. They’re on auto-pilot really, muddling through and getting on.
But then Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer, and everything looks different – and yet somehow just the same. Life goes on: there’s still the supermarket shop to do, the gentle bickering about how much beer is too much beer, the nightly walks to feed the Fitbit. It’s just that, now, there are chemotherapy appointments too – and hair loss and existential fear. Their loneliness is cleverly revealed: ‘We’re both suffering,’ insists Tom, anguished, but Joan’s the one who can’t stop vomiting. ‘No, we’re not! This is happening to ME.’
Neeson is terrific in this role. He plays alpha-male ‘revenge dads’ so often that it’s easy to overlook his ability to inhabit subtler, more nuanced characters. His pain is palpable, his reserve convincing. Manville is less of a surprise – she’s superb, as you’d expect. I like the brittle, chin-up attitude she conveys, the doubt and terror just discernible. The supporting cast do a good job too, particularly David Wilmot as Peter, the primary school teacher with a terminal diagnosis, in whom Joan finds a confidante.
The movie is a timely reminder, too, of how much we need the NHS. A cancer diagnosis is stressful enough; grumbling half-heartedly about having to pay for hospital car parking ‘even when you’re a patient’ is the extent of the financial worries that add to Tom and Joan’s burden.
In the end though, it’s the mundanity that makes this film so heartbreaking. There’s no big cathartic moment, no dramatic revelation. But there is hope and there is love. Of the extraordinary, ordinary kind.