Review: ‘Ordinary Love,’ starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in “Ordinary Love” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Bleecker Street)

“Ordinary Love”

Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn

Culture Representation: Taking place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, “Ordinary Love” has a predominantly white cast of middle-class characters, with the story focusing on a middle-aged couple who’ve been married for about 30 years.

Culture Clash: The couple’s marriage is put to the test when the wife finds out that she has breast cancer, and they have disagreements about her medical treatment.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people who want to see a well-acted, tear-jerking drama with realistic portrayals of marriage and health issues that affect millions of people.

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in “Ordinary Love” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

It’s no easy task to make a movie about someone getting cancer. The subject matter can be extremely depressing and there’s always the possibility that it will turn off an audience. However, the drama “Ordinary Love” is probably one of the most emotionally authentic scripted “cancer movies” that’s been made in quite some time. But be warned: Some of the scenes are so realistic, they’ll be very triggering for anyone who’s gone through something similar.

In the beginning of the story, life seems to be on a tranquil keel for middle-aged Belfast couple Tom (played by Liam Neeson) and Joan (played by Lesley Manville), who’ve been married for about 30 years and appear to be retired. Viewers see them going on pleasant walks together and going on errands. But one day, Joan feels a lump on her breast and makes a hospital appointment to get a medical exam about it.

Tom accompanies Joan to the appointment, where he tells her in the waiting area that he hates hospitals because they’re depressing and they remind him of death. After the exam, they’re told that the cyst in Joan’s breast could be cancerous. The doctor tells them that on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is not cancerous and 5 is definitely cancerous, the cyst is about a 3. Joan tries to look on the bright side, but Tom is already bracing himself for bad news.

And it is very bad news: Joan has cancer, and she has to have surgery to remove two lumps and about 13 lymph nodes. As the dreaded news sinks in, Joan tries to deal with it as bravely, even somewhat cheerfully, as possible, while Tom grows despondent and pessimistic.

The cancer diagnosis and the possibility of Joan dying also opens a wound from their past: Tom and Joan’s only child, a daughter named Debbie, died when she was an adult. It’s not mentioned in the movie how she died, but Debbie’s death has left a huge void in their lives. “I’m glad that Debbie isn’t here to see this,” Joan says of her cancer diagnosis. “It would break her heart.”

While in the car on the way to checking in for her hospital stay, Joan remembers that she hasn’t had time to visit Debbie’s grave since the cancer diagnosis. She asks Tom go to Debbie’s grave to tell her about Joan having cancer. Tom thinks it’s a ridiculous request, but Joan gets very upset and emotional when Tom expresses reluctance to do what she asked. He eventually does what Joan wishes. His scene at the grave is one of the most gut-wrenching parts of the movie.

There isn’t an unrealistic moment in “Ordinary Love,” mainly because of Neeson’s and Manville’s superb performances. The movie’s greatest authenticity is not from wailing melodrama (which a lot of cancer movies have) but from the quiet moments, such as the fear in Joan’s eyes as they’re preparing her for surgery, or the small talk that she makes with a fellow patient who’s also about to go into surgery.

The movie also shows the tensions that can arise from this traumatic medical diagnosis. Joan snaps at Tom because she thinks he asks the doctor too many questions. Tom thinks that Joan is not asking enough questions. She tells him to be quiet. Viewers can tell that this bickering isn’t really about how many questions the doctor is being asked but about how differently Tom and Joan are dealing with the diagnosis.

And in one of the best scenes in the film, the emotions run really raw when Tom and Joan get into an argument about how she takes her medication. He thinks she should be more mindful of her prescription pills—what to take and when to take them—and he starts to lecture her by saying that they’re both going through this together. Joan explodes and accuses him of being unsympathetic. She tells him that that as bad as he might be feeling, she feels even worse because she’s the one who has cancer and she’s the one who’s going through the type of pain that’s so severe, she can’t even think straight.

If people who see this movie wonder why it seems so realistic, it’s because “Ordinary Love” screenwriter Owen McCafferty’s wife Peggy was diagnosed with breast cancer. And “Ordinary Love” directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn are married in real life, which no doubt added a genuine layer to how Joan and Tom’s marital dynamic is portrayed on screen.

Tom and Joan also have several moments of loving support throughout this ordeal. When Joan starts to lose her hair because of chemotherapy, she asks Tom to help her shave it all off. He then tells her, “You’re a star, kid. You’re an absolute star.” And there are moments of shared humor, such as when Joan ends up choosing a wig and they have some laughs over her new look.

There’s also a subplot where, by chance, Joan sees a fellow patient she knows from her past. His name is Peter (played by David Wilmot), and he was one of Debbie’s teachers when Debbie was a child. Peter also has cancer, and he and Joan end up becoming confidants. Meanwhile, Peter’s life partner Steve (played by Amit Shah) and Tom find common ground in the feelings of grief and anxiety that come from having a partner go through cancer treatment.

“Ordinary Love” is the kind of movie where viewers will probably end up shedding some tears or getting very emotional in other ways. The title of the film is somewhat of a misnomer because the story shows that any love that can help someone through the trauma of cancer is far from ordinary.

Bleeker Street released “Ordinary Love” in select U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.