‘Ordinary Love’ Paints a Simple yet Searing Portrait of a Couple Facing Cancer

Many films treat love like a permanent dream state where pure bliss reigns. There may be the occasional fight or argument or a sudden pang of jealousy, but rarely do movies explore the unexpected natural threats life can throw. “Ordinary Love” observes with simple tenderness a middle-aged Irish couple facing a grave threat to their union. A day begins normal enough and then a visit to the doctor changes everything forever. How lovers find solidarity amid such a moment is at the heart of this film’s special power.

Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville) have been married for many years and are settled in their home life. A shared routine consists of long exercise walks, watching TV, making love and sharing jokes. One day Joan feels a lump in her breast and decides to go to the doctor. Tom seems to be utterly convinced nothing bad could possibly be coming their way. Then the news hits them: Joan has breast cancer. Surgery and treatment follow. While it seems Joan has a good chance of survival, their home life is disrupted by the after effects of chemotherapy, keeping track of medication, constant pain and Joan’s need to have a double mastectomy. Eventually the stress of it all leads to both partners opening up in ways previously unimaginable, even hurtful, while trying ever so hard to keep their bond intact.

“Ordinary Love” is a rare drama starring a major name like Liam Neeson which feels no need to get bombastic. It’s literally a small film, mostly confined to Tom and Joan’s house and the cold hospital rooms and cafeterias they’re forced to constantly occupy. Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, working from a screenplay by Owen McCafferty, infuse a feeling of everyday life. The opening moments of the couple going out for walks and bantering at the supermarket are homely and welcoming. How cancer invades their lives is true to how it tends to happen, without warning and rather mundane. Once Joan begins her painful road through illness and attempted recovery the film becomes a fine portrait of how regular life gets disrupted little by little. 

At the heart of “Ordinary Love” is the spirit of its title, which is about the nature of love itself. What Tom and Joan go through defines the essence of being someone’s partner, whether officially married or not. Some moments have a beautiful tenderness, as when Tom helps Joan cut off what’s left of her hair, now falling out because of the chemo. But then there are the difficult moments when Joan shivers with pain and Tom can only sit in front of the television, pretending he can continue a normal activity. A search for pills can derail into a mean fight while an intimate moment before Joan has her mastectomy captures how a physical loss can be felt by both spouses. The writing has no illusions about life’s hardships. We learn that Tom and Joan lost a daughter years ago. Now they have to face this test. Joan admits in a scene of quiet honesty that she’s glad their daughter didn’t live to endure the experience of seeing her mother battle cancer. 

These are magnificent performances full of very human empathy. Liam Neeson again reminds us he was always much more than an action star. He gives Tom the attitude of a simple man used to quick solutions now dealing with something fully out of his control. How he switches from tenderness to frustration is flawless. Lesly Manville is luminous as Joan. She’s not playing the role like a victim, but like an individual soberly dealing with illness. When she finally snaps at Tom it’s both heartbreaking but understandable. For some viewers these scenes might feel so real and relatable as to be unnerving. There’s also a wonderful supporting role by David Wilmot as Peter, a gay schoolteacher who once taught Tom and Joan’s daughter but is now struck with terminal cancer.  He becomes an anchor for Joan at the hospital, providing a friendship that builds because of shared pain.

What a perfect decision to release “Ordinary Love” on Valentine’s Day. This is actual devotion without compromises or cheap melodrama. It’s a film that understands how standing next to someone in the most adverse moments is possibly the greatest act of love. Life has its moments where it decides to be cruel and merciless, how lucky some of us are to have a hand to hold onto when such times come.

Ordinary Love” opens Feb. 14 in select theaters.