The original title of the Owen-McCafferty penned Ordinary Love was Normal People, but because a Sally Rooney novel utilized the same title last year, it had to be changed. Nevertheless, the kernel of McCafferty’s truth can be found in these title choices. This film chronicles a couple you would encounter on a daily walk, or on your local bus route, or at your favourite grocery store. An older couple with pleasant demeanours who gently quibble over buying too many brussels sprouts for Christmas dinner, or admonish each other over drinking too much beer. They are, by all accounts, familiar to us, for we do the same things with our own loved ones. In private, though, there is great pain. This couple, the Thompsons, have lost their teenage daughter and take care to visit her grave on her birthday. This year is different because Joan (Lesley Manville) has found a lump in her breast and must begin a terrifying round of hospital visits to fight her new battle. Her husband Tom (Liam Neeson) is steadfastly in her corner, though he has difficulty vocalizing the fear in his heart, leading to frequent breakdowns in communication. With one tragedy in the rearview mirror, another materializes out of thin air, and it will take all their bravery, determination and unconditional love to make it through this endless-seeming night.
Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn with a thoughtful gentleness, which includes emphasizing the physical closeness and distance between Joan and Tom throughout various points in the film, Ordinary Love is refreshingly unsentimental in its depiction of Joan’s cancer struggles. It is not, as one might fear from the get-go, a cheap weepie or abject misery porn that uses cancer to exploit the audience’s sympathies. While the vicissitudes of Joan’s treatment are not easy to contemplate, portrayed as a series of neverending encounters with strange machines and antiseptic operating theatres, McCafferty injects his screenplay with frequent doses of levity and sincerity, preventing the film from turning into a bleak affair. One memorable scene involves Tom volunteering to trim Joan’s hair when it begins falling out after chemotherapy. When he asks if she wants to sit down, she exclaims in the affirmative, asking him whether he has ever seen someone’s hair being cut while standing up. These jolts of affection stymie our sadness just enough so that what remains is more hopeful than heartbreaking. Perhaps “tender” is the best word of all to use. This will hit close to home to cancer survivors (as well as the loved ones of those who didn’t make it), but not in a way that will instill resentment. There is grace enough here for all viewers to walk away full in heart and soul, cradled by the exquisite turns of both Manville and Neeson.
Ordinary Love received its world premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 9, 2019.