There’s no shortage of films about cancer patients. The fight against the disease (especially in terminal cases) makes for good, emotional, and often tragic drama, especially when paired with romance. What sets Ordinary Love apart from other popular films that deal with subject, like The Fault in Our Stars, A Walk to Remember and Love Story is it’s refusal to be melodramatic. The film doesn’t get sentimental or weepy, but is certainly not unfeeling and unaffecting.
Tom and Joan (Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville) are a middle aged couple who are perfectly comfortable together. Though they’ve weathered a tragedy in their past, they’ve come through it and have an easygoing and ordinary, but happy, life. Their existence is complicated though when Joan notices a lump in one of her breasts that turns out to be cancerous.
One of the real marvels of this film and filmmakers Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s gentle, intimate direction is that it shows us, not just tells us, what cancer and its treatment really do to a person. We see how the surgeries and chemo affect on her on an emotional and physical level, as they do her husband. The viewer watches as she undergoes her mammogram and initial tests, preps for surgery, receives chemotherapy in the hospital alongside other patients, writhes in intense pain and illness at home from the treatment, begs for drugs and both leans into and lashes out at her husband as he tries his best to care for her.
There’s a narrative surrounding cancer that it makes one a stronger, better and different person to fight it and come out the other side. That notion is thrown away here. There’s no false bravado. It hurts and leaves physical and emotional scars on her, but it doesn’t make her or her relationship with her husband any different. Her breast cancer is just a truly awful thing that their forced to endure and wish they didn’t.
Manville and Neeson’s performances here are paramount to the film’s success and effectively establishing the delicate balance and tone required here. Though the instinct in a story like this would be to out pour with emotion and devastation, they play the parts with careful and quiet restraint. They’re in pain and are only able to share so much of that with each other, as each has their own specific, alienating hurt in this ordeal they must contend with.
Most importantly though they feel like a real couple who have been together for decades and will continue to be for the rest of their life. There doesn’t need to be any grand romantic declarations or gestures here because one can tell that they love and care for each other simply by the way he reaches for her hand and she teases him. The scene in which he cuts and shaves her hair is one of the most intimate moments in film this year.
Interestingly though, while this anti-weepy, direct approach is one of the film’s primary assets, it isn’t always entirely effective. While the film feels true, as audience members we’re trained to expect something more dramatic and aggressively emotional. The directors, writer, and cast are avoiding doing this purposefully, but it does come at the cost of making the film less moving and impactful then it may have otherwise been. However, though you may not sob during it, this is still a very poignant portrait of a marriage that’s forced to endure an incredible hardship. And if you know someone who’s had cancer (and I’d venture to say everyone who’s reading this does), it will give you a powerful insight into what they’ve gone/are currently going through that other media really hasn’t.
by Jennifer Verzuh
Jennifer Verzuh is a writer who’s spent the past year and a half travelling across the US working at film festivals after graduating college, where she studied literature and film production. Some of her favorite movies are Carol, Ida, Jackie & Nashville. You can follow her on Twitter at @20thcenturywmn or letterboxd.