Ordinary Love is anything but

Ordinary Love

Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa
(Ireland, 2019)

Review by Barbara Popel

The excellent Irish film Ordinary Love does something relatively rare – it takes us into the lives of a very ordinary middle-class, middle-aged couple whose placid, uneventful lives are knocked sideways by a traumatic crisis.

Tom and Joan (Liam Neeson and Academy Award nominee Lesley Manville) have been married for many years. The degree of their “ordinary” love is evident before the title credits roll, as the two of them stride briskly along the shore – she taking two steps for every one of his – getting their daily exercise. They come to a small tree which is their halfway point but rather than allowing Tom to turn on his heel and head for home, Joan pushes him around the tree so he does their complete exercise circuit. Sweet. Then they comfortably hold hands on their way home. They share an easy-going camaraderie such as develops – if a couple is lucky – after the romance and passion have abated in a marriage. As they josh and tease over the dinner table, we get the feeling they’re each other’s best friends. Their bickering about Tom’s evening beer and who puts away the Christmas ornaments is mild. All seems perfectly ordinary. No drama here, folks, just move along.

Then Joan finds a lump in her breast. And their ordeal starts.

Terrified, Joan asks Tom, “What’s going to happen if I’ve got cancer?” He reassures her, “If you do – and you don’t! – we’ll do whatever has to be done, just the two of us.” They’re in this together, but their lives are about to change forever.

Any woman who has been through the usual steps of diagnosis, from “It’s probably just a cyst” to “I’m afraid I have to tell you that you have breast cancer,” will empathize with Joan. They’ll do so even more as Joan goes through a radical double mastectomy, then more tests to see if the cancer has spread to her liver or bones, then many debilitating chemo treatments.

Any man whose loved one has been down this terrible path will empathize with Tom. He hates being in the hospital – it’s full of sick people! He rails against the medical establishment. Why can’t the doctors be certain about the test results? After Joan’s mastectomy, why can’t her surgeon say she is cancer-free? Tom seems very alone. (By this time, we’ve found out that their adult daughter, Debbie, died some time in the past. We don’t know what caused her death, but there are hints it wasn’t a disease.) Tom dreads what will happen to him if Joan dies. He asks a stranger at the hospital, “How do you say to someone, ‘Don’t die!’?”

The most harrowing scene isn’t when Joan is shivering and retching from the side effects of the chemo or when Tom is talking at his daughter’s graveside about his fear of being alone. It’s when their terrors – she of death, he of being alone – explode in a screaming fight full of blame and hurtful words. How can they possibly forgive each other, after what they’re just said? Well, they do.

The focus isn’t on the horrible things these two people are going through. It’s on how they react to this seemingly never-ending nightmare. They always come back to each other and to the love that grounds them.

Ordinary Love is anything but ordinary! See it with someone you love.

Running time: 92 minutes
Rated: PG (Warning: brief scenes of a woman’s breasts.)
Available: Apple TV, Crave, Google Play, Illico, Kanopy and YouTube

Barb Popel has lived in the Glebe since 1991. At university in the early 1970s, she was introduced to the joys of film. She’s been an avid filmgoer ever since.

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