Most love stories are about the fall into love – the initial sparks, the early tempests, all that which greets a burgeoning romance. Very few seem to concern themselves with what happens after love has fermented itself and how it adapts to age. This decade has provided some notable exceptions as films like Amour and 45 Years alternatively depict couples in the twilights of their relationships. They revel in the smaller details, the tics which accumulate after a life has been spent together, how the most insignificant of actions become iridescent with time-gathered meanings.
Ordinary Love is one such film. It follows retired, middle-aged couple Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) as they go about their hermetic lives. When they go out walking together, they do so in sync with one another’s steps, earphones in, knowing that one another’s company is enough. They say whatever pops into their head: “How do the Fitbits know when we’re walking?” Tom asks sporadically as they watch TV. Their life is one of routine: something as small as adding Worcestershire sauce to their lunchtime soup can initiate a conversation. Their relationship has settled into an easy rhythm, the kind that can only come after decades of marriage.
All this changes when Joan discovers a lump on her breast and is subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer. After receiving this news, while driving home, Tom suggests that they go to a Thai restaurant – he wants to do something, anything – but Joan would rather continue on as normal and cook the pork chops that they’ve already bought. It is a small but typically telling scene, demonstrating fundamental differences between them and forewarning us of the conflicts, however slight, that are to come.
Playwright Owen McCafferty’s first screenplay – informed by his own experiences of supporting his wife through breast cancer – delights in such tiny illuminations and subtle revelations. There is hardly an image or scene in Ordinary Love that does not find an echo somewhere else, but such recurrences are inevitably different, reverberating with the implications of Joan’s diagnosis. Some are obvious such as Tom out walking alone. Others are more surprising and unique. Early on we see the couple have sex, but this does not prepare us for the raw intimacy and melancholia of a later sex scene in which the couple say goodbye to Joan’s soon-to-be operated upon breasts.
Liam Neeson is terrific as a husband struggling to put on a brave face, but it is Lesly Manville who steals the show. Manville knows how a quick glance can infect a line and when to use it while her entire demeanour throughout radiates Joan’s weariness and her resilience. It is the type of performance whose brilliance slowly dawns on you throughout the film and continues to do so after you’ve finished watching.
Few films are as comfortable as Ordinary Love is with the power of silence. That is not to say that the film is not, at times, loud and articulate – Joan’s angry question to Tom, “Whose pain is this?” before attacking his selfishness is both these things – but most of the time, the film is content to allow a single shot to say everything. Joan and Tom’s daughter Debbie, who died a decade ago, is mentioned a few times, but it is the image of her still made bed and her untouched bookshelf (only shown on screen once) that tells us what the characters never explicitly do – some things can never be overcome.
Despite its subject matter, the film is not a bleak one. Piers McGrail’s beautiful cinematography intimately captures both the lush, warm reddish browns of Joan and Tom’s home while disinterestedly framing the cold greys and blues of the film’s hospital scenes. McGrail’s compositions speak to the film’s gentle balancing of light and dark, hope and despair, and the film’s best scenes frequently see the two go hand-in-hand. In one such instance, as Joan’s hair begins to fall out, Tom jokes that he never liked it anyway. There is an irresistible and emboldening humour to Ordinary Love and, like Joan and Tom themselves do, the film finds something comforting and resilient in love’s tenacity.