Cancer is so rarely well-handled in films, especially when it afflicts women. A coughing fit here, a bald cap there, and a final angelic glow and speech before a dignified death. Ordinary Love, thankfully, bucks this trend (though there is a slightly shonky bald cap), seeing cancer as both the terrifying force of nature that it is, but also as a fact of older life that is possible to survive. Great, lived-in writing, unfussy direction, and two excellent performances elevate this couple in crisis story, moving without overselling anything or ever going for cheap ploys.
The couple is Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson), two retirees who are clearly still in love and a have a warmly convincing banterous back and forth that makes evident their years and years of profound knowledge of one another. After Joan’s diagnosis of breast cancer, the pair start to prepare for the worst whilst trying their best to retain some level of normality. Grief is not new to them – they lost their daughter in unspecified circumstances – but the physical ravages of cancer are, and they find their relationship tested. Owen McCafferty’s script never goes for cheap moves, never pushing Joan and Tom further apart than it needs to or trying to shock the audience with additional medical crises.
There is horror and discomfort, yes, but also happiness and deeply felt human connection and a surprising fun camaraderie found in the cancer wards, especially after Joan reconnects with her late daughter’s old school teacher Peter (David Wilmot), who is struggling with a terminal diagnosis. Both Manville and Neeson are really fantastic, beautifully understated, and this is the best Neeson has been in a long while. Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s direction puts the performances front and centre, but still finds time to play with light and time in interesting ways.
Greys and black silhouettes fill Joan and Tom’s softly lit home during the bad times, while gentler, warmer colours return whenever Joan makes an improvement. At the hospital, everything is colder and brighter, and Manville superbly conveys the general chilly discomfort of medical prodding and poking, even outside of the agony of the cancer treatments. With no pretension whatsoever, tragedy sits alongside hope and grace in this melancholy little love story. Not many films could wring tears out of the old age death of a goldfish. Ordinary Love can.