Two very strong performances by the leads form the backbone of this relationship film. Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville make a film which could be totally depressing one that is an uplifting watch due to their highly believable turns as a middle aged couple who have settled into a sort of comfort zone that comes along with being largely happily married for decades only to be jolted out by an unexpected medical diagnosis. This leads to plenty of pressure being imposed upon their relationship.
Cancer is crap! And I am being restrained here. It is a cruel disease which is pervasive across the globe. Meaning that rare is the person who has not had their life affected by it in one form or another. Plenty of time and effort has been spent upon cancer by the film community. Films like 50/50, Terms of Endearment, A Walk to Remember, Brian’s Song, and The Fault in Our Stars are just a sampling of “cancer” films which have previously been produced. Ordinary Love can be added to the pile. But put it in the upper echelon.
Lisa Barros D’Sa (Cherrybomb, Good Vibrations) and Glenn Leyburn’s (Good Vibrations, Cherrybomb) film, while cancer plays an important role here, use the disease as a plot device to advance the relationship stressor story they want to tell. Written by Owen McCafferty (play Mickybo and Me), the film tenderly and realistically looks at how a wife’s breast cancer diagnosis affects the marriage of a middle aged couple.
After having gone through the heart wrenching tragedy of having their daughter die, Belfast residing couple, Tom (Liam Neeson – Kinsey, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) and Joan (Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread, Maleficent) have settled into a rather comfortable and loving pattern. Their marriage seems strong and their relationship enviable. They banter back and forth without hating each other. They exercise together. Have a healthy sex life. In other words, they seem to have achieved the almost impossible by having been married for decades and still liking each other.
All this is out the window when unexpectedly Joan finds a lump in her breast and is diagnosed with breast cancer. Going through a couple of operations and chemotherapy puts plenty of stress on the couple. They are both put into different positions with Joan having to be taken care of and Tom having to take on the brunt of running the household. Fights occur and angry words are said. After all they have been through, will cancer be the end of them?
Grim. That pretty much sums up any film with cancer in it. Especially when it involves breast cancer as that adds another level of the woman having her desirability and the body part which largely distinguishes the sex into question. All this, in the hands of those with less talent, usually leads to a film which devolves into melodrama. But such is not the case here. What Neeson, Manville, Barros D’Sa, and Leyburn give film goers is a realistic depiction of a marriage which is knocked for a loop by cancer. They do not simplify things here. Joan is not painted as the saintly victim nor is Tom the insensitive husband. They are fully fleshed out and nuanced characters. No one is all good or all bad. It is shades of grey here.
Lesley Manville is a great, if underappreciated, actress. With her brave and tempered portrayal of a woman going through the agony of breast cancer, her Joan is highly relatable and realistic. For someone who has based most of his most recent career on action films, Liam Neeson reminds us here of what he is capable of. Not since the days of Schindler’s List, Husbands and Wives and Nell has Neeson been asked to stretch his acting muscles in the direction of the charming, witty and sensitive Tom.
Some, due to the evenness of the film, might be lulled into boredom. Which seems a weird statement given the subject matter, but because of the realistic pacing and depiction of human life some might mistakenly write off the film as “boring”. Don’t give into the prodding by a large swath of today’s films that unless there are car chases, gun play and CGI that a film is not worth watching. Or cannot possibly keep your attention. This is one of those films labelled “small” which actually is a skillful depiction of the human condition.
The film screened at TIFF in 2019 and has now gained a well deserved wide release.