Love is eternally undefinable. It looks and feels different for everybody. For some, it can be measured on a scale from zero to 3000; for others, they’ll push a child out a window for it. Another form of love is the one that exists between sexagenarians Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) in Ordinary Love. Their mutual affection is sweet, unvarnished and very real. Their many years together have nurtured a mushy banter between them, which is enough to draw the envy of lonely hearts both old and young. But their love is also weathered having endured the passing of their daughter. Now, they face a fresh challenge with Joan’s breast cancer diagnosis. Ordinary Love follows the couple’s changing relationship after they receive this devastating news.
The story is fairly simple. What makes Ordinary Love worthwhile is Joan and Tom’s dynamic. This is drawn from a well-crafted screenplay — penned by playwright Owen McCafferty — in the hands of talented performers. In arguing about brussels sprouts purchases and Fitbit step counts, the discussion of the minutiae makes Joan and Tom feel real. Such exchanges are cute but sometimes venture into the twee and egregiously familiar. But both Manville and Neeson are impressive in their tenderness and sensitivity; this straightforward narrative would be unremarkable without such convincing portrayals of love and anguish. At one moment the couple might be on one of their playful and charming scenic walks, and at another, they may be arguing harshly and impatiently – a world away from the aforementioned banter. Regardless of where between these two extreme Manville and Neeson find themselves during Ordinary Love, they are utterly convincing.
But this relationship is not the only standout feature. While waiting for a chemotherapy session, Joan and Tom recognize one of their daughter’s former schoolteachers, Peter (David Wilmot), who is also being treated for cancer. Despite all of Tom’s support (he cuts Joan’s hair and honestly tells her she still looks beautiful), Joan values Peter’s company for he also knows what it means to live with cancer. This is especially true in the context of love: Peter, who is not doing nearly as well as Joan in fighting this disease, is worried by the thought of having to leave behind his partner, Steve (Amit Shah). Indeed, a reason why Joan and Peter’s friendship is essential to the story is that it further highlights the precarious position in which both find themselves. The brevity of life has never seemed more apparent to them, which is why these delicately handled, bittersweet moments allow Ordinary Love to paint a fuller picture.
If compared to fellow LFF offering Babyteeth — a cliché defying story of a teenage girl with cancer and her newfound attraction to a deadbeat drug abuser — Ordinary Love is, well, kind of ordinary. Although there were chances for directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn to do something more novel, at least they were honest about the story they told. Manville and Neeson deserve praise for their presentation of a battle-weary yet tenacious love. If viewers aren’t able to fall in love with their love, then the film would be difficult to engage with. Yes, this is about an ordinary love. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.