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Non-Review Review: Ordinary Love

Ordinary Love offers a charming and affecting glimpse inside a marriage.

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville play Tom and Joan, an ageing couple enjoying their autumn years together. One evening, Joan discovers a lump in her left breast. As a result, the couple find themselves navigating a precarious emotional rollercoaster as Joan deals with the resulting diagnosis and Tom struggles to hold it all together long enough that he might be his wife’s rock. Along the way, the couple try to find some balance in their lives, to maintain a delicate equilibrium inside a marriage that has already been strained by trauma unimaginable.

Food for love.
And also just food.

The “cancer” subgenre is a strange thing, encompassing movies such as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or My Sister’s Keeper. These sorts of movies, and others about terminal diseases or afflictions, have to walk a fine line. Cancer is so common an ailment that such loss and such trauma is almost a universal experience. Movies like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and My Sister’s Keeper can often struggle to capture the depth of emotion associated with such a diagnosis without slipping into cynical exploitation.

Ordinary Love works so well because of the humanity and empathy at its core. As the title implies, and as Tom outlines during one of the film’s most moving scenes, Ordinary Love understands that this sort of trauma is so horrifying because of the way it intrudes into the familiar and the safe. Cancer is a disease that turns a body against itself, spreading and growing inside the body that a person has known since birth. Ordinary Love captures that intrusion of the unknown into the familiar, offering a beautiful and moving sketch of a marriage that feels lived-in.

A couple of delights.

Neeson and Manville do great work in Ordinary Love, working with a script credited to playwright Owen McCafferty. Much of the film unfolds in familiar surroundings – in the living room and bedroom of their shared house, at the tree that marks the end of their walking route, in the shopping centre where they pick up their groceries. Similarly, much of the film is given over to relatively mundane conversations, such as Tom’s recurring fascination with how his FitBit actually works.

There’s an observed quality to all of this, a naturalism drawn with surprising ease. Tom and Joan bicker and banter, but with an abiding affection for one another. During one supermarket discussion, Tom broaches the absurdity of the conversation. “Are we arguing about the frequency with which I use a blender that we don’t have?” he ponders, in a moment of reflection that will likely resonate with anybody who has enjoyed a similarly tangent-driven conversation with a long-term partner.

Quite Taken with it.

Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn understand that any real lasting relationship is built around such routines. These little moments that are about nothing, but somehow add up to mean everything. Ordinary Love builds across its run-time, welcoming the audience into the small and intimate moments of the marriage. Over the course of the film’s ninety-minute runtime, Tom and Joan’s little in-jokes are shared, to the point that the audience almost feels like part of the family.

It helps that Neeson and Manville are comfortable enough with one another to sell that relationship. Tom and Joan talk endlessly about things that don’t matter – about the parking at the hospital, about the nonsense on the television – but the film is also confident enough to allow them moments of silence and introspection. Ordinary Love is at its strongest when it allows its leads to just be, whether alone or together. Neeson and Manville communicate an entire lifetime in glances and gestures, creating a sense that the marriage that anchors the film has been truly lived in.

Joan’s arc.

To be fair, there are some minor problems. Ordinary Love occasionally leans a little too hard into the tropes and conventions of these particular stories. As the treatment takes its toll on Tom and Joan, the two inevitably build to a big blowout shouting match which seems designed to play either in trailers or at awards shows. The film also repeatedly underscores the idea that Tom and Joan have each other by allowing the camera to dwell on the otherwise empty spaces through which they move. It is a charming device at first, but the film occasionally leans a little too heavily on it.

Still, these are small complaints. Ordinary Love is a small and sweet study of moments from a marriage, creating a relationship and dynamic that feels truly lived in.

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