Love in the time of cancer
It’s hard to know what Irish directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn—neither of them well known—had in mind in making “Ordinary Love” with the extraordinarily well-known Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. On the one hand, it’s a remarkably authentic story of the sort of “ordinary love” that inhabits the relationships of many couples, perhaps especially older ones: a deep understanding and (for the most part) tolerance of the other’s likes and dislikes, habits and foibles; a friendly, even playful physicality, with lots of handholding and occasional sex.
Much of the film resembles an episode of “General Hospital”
On the other hand, much of the film resembles an episode of “General Hospital” or a Hallmark made-for-TV movie about breast cancer, a disease that upends the quotidian existence of Joan (Manville) and Tom (Neeson). We see Joan get a mammogram (left arm up and over), an ultrasound, a CAT scan, a body scan (dolly sliding in and out) and chemotherapy, then watch her vomit. We see Tom biding time in anxious boredom (you would think he’d bring a book) in various waiting rooms and green hospital cafeterias. By the time Joan is scheduled for a double mastectomy, we know enough about her lump and lymph nodes to play doctor, to wonder if she should have the procedure.
What happens when a solid, affectionate, loving marriage is subject to the stress of a serious illness?
The medical stuff is apparently designed to suggest and reveal what happens when a solid, affectionate, loving marriage—albeit somewhat patterned and isolated (their only child has died)—is subject to the stress of a serious illness. As expected, both Joan and Tom lose their resilience as the process runs its course. They argue in the car on the way to yet another medical appointment. They disagree about how much Tom should participate in discussions with physicians. Chemotherapy at once brings them together (a tender and powerful head-shaving scene) and tears them apart (an argument over pills). At one point, they stop holding hands on the regular walks, through a sunless Belfast, that chart their changing relationship. It’s not unexpected, either, that Joan will seek to alleviate her isolation—to share her pain with another in similar circumstances, in this case Peter (David Wilmot), a gay man with terminal cancer.
Some will find the superb performances by Neeson and Manville and their nuanced relationship reason enough to see the film, but those who do will have to tolerate more than half of the 90 minutes watching what is otherwise a dreary, heavy-handed and over-determined project. Does one need to be bored in a film to feel boredom? Do we really need to see Joan and Tom—not once but several times—in doubled silhouette over breakfast, drawing attention to their isolation? Does anyone ever turn on a light in their home? Why do these nice people have no friends? Must the goldfish die? Will metaphors never cease?
Directors: Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn
Starring: Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville, David Wilmot
Runtime: 92 minutes