There’s nothing ordinary about this deeply moving, frequently funny and piercingly insightful drama from Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty, making his screenwriting feature debut. On the surface it’s a tale of a middle-aged couple facing up to a diagnosis of breast cancer, and a year of medical intervention. Yet beyond this immediate diagnosis is something far more rich and compelling – a story of everyday love between two people living in the shadow of grief, facing an uncertain future, both together and apart.
Directed with wit, subtlety and great emotional honesty by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (the co-directors of 2012’s brilliantly life-affirming Good Vibrations), it’s a singular story with universal appeal – striking a very personal chord with some viewers while finding common ground with the widest possible audience. I’ve seen it three times so far, and found it more joyous, heart-breaking and ultimately uplifting with each subsequent viewing.
Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson are note-perfect as Joan and Tom, a couple living in Northern Ireland for whom gentle bickering has become a sign of affection – a way of saying “I love you” without having to use those often awkward words. At Joan’s apparent insistence, the pair have taken up walking, striding along a waterside prom to a designated tree and back – an attempt to stave off the inevitable aches and pains of ageing. “How does the Fitbit know you’re walking?” Tom asks his ever-so-slightly exasperated wife, before insisting that the exercise “allows me to have a beer” despite her health-conscious protestations to the contrary.
When Joan feels a lump in her breast, her husband tries to reassure her that it’s “nothing”, even after initial investigations raise cause for concern. “We’ll do whatever has to be done, the two of us,” says Tom, asserting that “there isn’t a moment I won’t be with you”. Yet that togetherness will be sorely tested by a process that necessarily separates patients from their loved ones, frequently leaving Tom stewing in impersonal waiting rooms while Joan undergoes examination and surgery. “I’m glad our Debbie isn’t here to go through this,” says Joan, referring to the lost daughter whose presence still feels real, highlighting divisions between the couple’s different ways of dealing (or not dealing) with the current crisis.
Anyone with experience of a similar situation will recognise the pinpoint accuracy with which Ordinary Love depicts Joan’s journey through cancer care, right down to such tiny details as the weirdly jarring snapping sound of the mechanised syringe used to take a biopsy. Equally on the money is the depiction of the petty distractions that can accompany life-changing hospital visits – the moment of panic Joan feels when she’s called for her test results just as Tom has disappeared off to the toilet; a tense exchange conducted sotto voce while queuing to pay for the car parking.
It’s that evocation of the intangible interface between the mundane and the monumental that lends Ordinary Love such universal appeal – the sense of down-to-earth characters quietly wrestling with the cosmic mysteries of life and death, love and grief, with a mixture of sorrow and laughter. Whether it’s a tragicomic graveside musing about the metaphysics of the afterlife, or an absurdist argument about three being closer to five than one on a sliding scale of probability (apparently drawn verbatim from an exchange between McCafferty and his wife Peggy), Ordinary Love brilliantly captures that strange sense of everything and nothing happening simultaneously – to everyone.
Crucially, although the narrative is bookended with images of Tom and Joan together, the emotional separation they experience during Joan’s treatment is accompanied by an unexpected bonding with others who are going through the same thing – the “Normal People” of the script’s original title. One of Debbie’s old teachers, formerly dismissed as “arrogant”, becomes a confidante, a fellow patient with whom Joan can laugh about the indignities of chemo-induced hair loss. Meanwhile Tom (who is “always Tom”) makes a waiting-room connection that proves quietly groundbreaking, causing a subtle change that cuts to the heart of the film’s wider purpose.
With cinematographer Piers McGrail and editor Nick Emerson, Leyburn and Barros D’Sa create a cinematic space that combines the intimate domestic stillness of Michael Haneke’s Amour with an almost Kubrickian sense of alienating architecture during the accelerating hospital scenes. A beautiful ambient score by David Holmes and Brian Irvine proves as quietly powerful and moving as the film itself, like a randomly generated cellular lullaby.
As for the performances, they are simply flawless, with particular plaudits to Manville, for whom awards are surely due. A wordless closeup of her face as Joan undergoes breast imaging will stay with me forever – in her eyes, we see fear, anxiety and a hint of loneliness, mixed with a strange cocktail of acceptance and defiance, and something that still manages to look like love.