There is a subgenre of dramas that we could call The Cancer Movie: oblique body-horror stories, cinematic nightmares for people who don’t like slasher sprees that play on a real existential fear that we aren’t wrong to worry about. (Apparently somewhere between a third and a half of all of us will develop cancer in our lifetimes. Yikes.)
Ordinary Love is a Cancer Movie but not a horror story. It’s not remotely scary, though we do worry deeply about its protagonists. It’s funny and moving and hopeful and buoyant. It’s the sort of story that’s all, Hey, if you have to get cancer, here’s how to get through it.
First step: Be married forever to your best friend, and have a history together that has already weathered profound challenges. Like Joan (Lesley Manville: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Phantom Thread) and Tom (Liam Neeson: Men in Black: International, Cold Pursuit), who have a comfortable married relationship the likes of which we don’t see often onscreen: they bicker gently, tease mercilessly, and radiate an intense love for each other that manifests in every mundane interaction and in every routine conversation.
Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty’s script (his feature debut) finds the most exquisite meaning in, say, a conversation about whether the couple needs to buy more tomato juice. Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn stage the walk around a supermarket wherein this conversation takes place with a clear-eyed appreciation for the power of such a nurturing chore to cement lives. Manville and Neeson conjure the cozy intimacy that comes from a couple who know how to support each other on a daily basis, and why that matters.
Then Joan finds a lump in her breast. She and Tom have tragedy in their past — not illness, but they know about sudden grief and what it takes to endure it. So they are ready for this trial. It is a challenge that we take with them, in all its nitty-gritty intimacy. It’s not the medical stuff that is intimate: there is no damaged flesh on view, no gory surgeries, barely even a needle, though there are plenty of procedures for Joan to undergo. No, Ordinary Love lays bare the emotional roller coaster Joan and Tom are on. It is beautifully observed and achingly honest. This is a portrait of a relationship being tested, and how the couple push back at that.
The vitally urgent medical issue here? Ordinary Love is also a love letter to the NHS, the UK’s nationalized health service. (Tom and Joan appear to live somewhere in Northern Ireland, but their city is never named and it doesn’t matter. This is a story universal, in this sense, on a UK-wide scale.) In a few days, UK voters (I’m one of them) will cast ballots in an election that will have a huge impact on the future of the NHS, and it’s unfathomable that anyone who understands just how valuable the institution is could look at this movie and fail to want to save it.
And when Ordinary Love opens in the US early next year, American audiences will be shocked — and jealous! — to note that, amidst all the anxiety and worry that Joan and Tom are suffering, none of it has to do with medical bills for Joan’s year-long treatment. That’s all free at the point of service. (The US version of this movie would, if it were as honest, have to features scenes in which Tom is arguing with their insurance company on the phone while Joan is puking her guts up during chemotherapy, and how this additional stress impacts their relationship as well as her recovery.) Their big financial complaint? Their only financial complaint? That they have to pay for parking at the hospital, even though Joan is a patient. It’s an outrage.
Ordinary Love is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for February 14th, 2020. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.