by Kayla McCulloch on Mar 5, 2020

Odds are, cancer has significantly impacted the lives of the majority of us. Whether  a loved one who has passed away, a friend who has been diagnosed, or a personal journey of one's own, this disease makes profoundly personal attacks on 1 in 2 women and 1 in 3 men in the United States. It's worse in the United Kingdom: 1 in 2 men and women will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes. In the case of married British couple Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville), the two can assume that at least one of them will hear the bad news eventually. This inescapable probability is the driving force of Ordinary Love, a romantic drama that follows directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's modestly successful but predominantly underseen music-driven drama Good Vibrations (2012).

Tom and Joan have been through a great deal. You aren't exactly sure what, but you can tell by the way they interact with one another that the journey to their peaceful retirement in their suburban dwelling wasn't exactly a cakewalk. Their evening strolls are playful: They toy with each other as they cross the bridge and round the sapling that serves as their respective home stretch and endpoint, but there's something unspoken between them as they watch the cars fly past. Their late-night television consumption is punctuated by spurts of wry back-and-forth, a solitary framed picture of their daughter sitting on the mantle watching over them like a religious image. They aren't on the rocks, by any means — neither of them is overtly unhappy, neither seems dissatisfied with their comfortable routines, and life is more or less good. Good in the same way that someone would reply when a colleague asks how they're doing, an automatic response said without a second thought.

Perhaps comfortable is a better word. Tom and Joan are comfortable. It explains why he's so blasé when she asks him to feel the lump in her left breast discovered in the shower one night. Sure, he encourages her to go get it checked out, but it's not something that'll keep either of them from sleeping. (After all, a lump doesn't quite fit into their routine.) Still, Joan does what Tom suggests and gets the bump examined. "It's probably just a cyst," her doctor suggests before moving onto the same surface-level questions about her life. To be safe, he orders a couple of follow-up exams for Joan. Tom is still somewhat dismissive, but there's a twinge of concern in his voice about this day of tests. Joan is poked, prodded, and jabbed by a slew of healthcare professionals, only to find that — on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being nothing and 5 being cancer — this lump is about a 3. They might as well have diagnosed her right then and there, though. Joan knows what her odds are. She just spent a whole day in waiting rooms surrounded by former comfortable women now in the exact same position as her.

Ordinary Love shows that the greatest challenges in life are often multifaceted. After 29 years of marriage, Tom and Joan know practically everything about one another, but they both try to hide thing. It's a relationship of complete openness and yet total secrecy. Joan receives a cancer diagnosis, likely the loneliest trial she'll ever face, yet the hospital is full of countless other cancer patients who know precisely what she's experiencing. She's on her own but fully supported. How can there be such drastic dualities in everything we face? The answer to this question is as elusive as the cure to the cancer that has uprooted Joan and Tom’s once-normal lives. Even if these tribulations were always lurking underneath the surface, there's no doubt they would've preferred they stayed hidden — like an overturned rock that reveals a knot of worms, it's best not to think about what kind of grotesqueries are hidden beneath the ground we've always thought was solid.

With Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson's restrained performances at the heart of Ordinary Love, it's no surprise that the film thoroughly delivers on an emotional level. Manville's anguish never delves into overacting, while Neeson's sardonic Irish brood effectively conveys his character's dry humor without ever coming across as the kind of quippy, sarcastic jerk that headlines so many contemporary blockbusters. (This makes sense, given Manville's late-period resurgence in the wake of her Oscar-nominated turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread [2017] and Neeson's continued pursuit of roles across a spectrum of genres.) The pair's convincing portrayal of Tom and Joan will no doubt prove deeply personal to moviegoers who've experienced a cancer battle firsthand, and also widely appealing to audiences who might be lucky enough to not know exactly what it feels like to watch someone you love fight something so relentlessly brutal. 

While a single mounted camera could've been enough for Manville and Neeson to carry this film — no camera tricks or extra flair is needed when there's this much strength in front of the lens — D'Sa and Leyburn's work as directors serves as an added bonus that highlights the warm conventionality of this married couple's life. Shots of Tom and Joan's empty house placed in between key scenes help to amplify the ways cancer can metastasize to the home. The camera, slowly moving through nearly three decades of matrimonial memorabilia, lingers on the silhouette of the dining room table or the cracked door to their daughter's room. It's these interludes that give the viewer time to consider all the ways in which a regular existence has been rendered abnormal. Before long, there's nothing left but the cancer. One by one, every routine of theirs (from feeding the fish to their afternoon tea to Tom's nightly beer) is upended by Joan's disease. Is it heartbreaking? Is it unfair? Is it tragic? Looking at the overwhelming likelihood of cancer in men and women, it seems that — more than anything else — it's ordinary.

Rating: B-