Jthere’s nothing ordinary about this deeply moving, often funny and insightful drama from Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty, who is making his screenwriting debut. On the surface, it’s the story of a middle-aged couple coping with a diagnosis of breast cancer and a year of medical intervention. Yet beyond this immediate diagnosis, there is something much richer and more compelling – a daily love story between two people living in the shadow of grief, facing an uncertain future, both together and separately.
Directed with wit, subtlety and great emotional honesty by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (the co-directors of 2012’s Brilliantly Life-Affirming good vibes), it’s a singular story with universal appeal – striking a very personal chord with some viewers while finding common ground with the widest possible audience. I’ve seen it three times so far and found it more joyful, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting with each subsequent viewing.
Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson are perfect as Joan and Tom, a couple living in Northern Ireland for whom sweet bickering has become a sign of affection – a way of saying “I love you” without having to use those often awkward words. At Joan’s apparent insistence, the couple began to walk, walking along a prom by the water’s edge to a designated tree and back – an attempt to stave off the inevitable pains of ageing. “How Fitbit Works to know you walking?” Tom asks his still slightly exasperated wife, before insisting that the exercise “allow me for a beer” despite her health-conscious protestations to the contrary.
When Joan feels a lump in her breast, her husband tries to reassure her that it’s “nothing”, even after initial investigations raise concerns. “We’ll do whatever it takes, the two of us,” Tom said, asserting that “there’s not a moment when I won’t be with you.” Yet that unity will be strained by a process that necessarily separates patients from their loved ones, frequently leaving Tom to simmer in impersonal waiting rooms while Joan undergoes an examination and surgery. “I’m glad our Debbie isn’t here to get through this,” Joan says, referring to the lost girl whose presence still seems real, highlighting the divisions between the couple’s different ways of doing things (or not coping) with the current crisis.
Anyone who has been through a similar situation will recognize the pinpoint accuracy with which ordinary love depicts Joan’s journey through cancer care, down to details as minute as the eerily jarring snap of the mechanized syringe used to perform a biopsy. Also on the money is the description of the little distractions that can accompany life-altering hospital visits – the moment of panic Joan feels when she is called in for her test results just as Tom has disappeared to the bathroom ; a tense exchange conducted sotto voce while queuing to pay for parking.
It is this evocation of the intangible interface between the banal and the monumental that lends ordinary love such universal appeal – the feeling of down-to-earth characters quietly wrestling with the cosmic mysteries of life and death, love and heartbreak, with a mixture of grief and laughter. Whether it’s a tragicomic reflection on the metaphysics of the afterlife or an absurd argument that three is closer to five than to one on a sliding scale of probability (apparently taken verbatim from ‘an exchange between McCafferty and his wife Peggy), ordinary love brilliantly captures that strange feeling that everything and nothing is happening simultaneously – for everyone.
Crucially, although the story is accompanied by images of Tom and Joan together, the emotional separation they experience during Joan’s treatment is accompanied by an unexpected bond with others who are going through the same thing – the “people normals” from the original title of the script. One of Debbie’s former teachers, once considered “arrogant”, becomes a confidant, a patient companion with whom Joan can laugh at the indignities of chemo-induced hair loss. Meanwhile, Tom (who is “still Tom”) makes a connection in the waiting room that turns out to be quietly groundbreaking, causing a subtle change that goes to the heart of the film’s larger purpose.
With cinematographer Piers McGrail and editor Nick Emerson, Leyburn and Barros D’Sa create a cinematic space that combines the intimate domestic stillness of Michael Haneke Love with an almost Kubrickian sense of alienating architecture during the accelerating hospital scenes. A beautiful ambient score by David Holmes and Brian Irvine proves as quietly powerful and moving as the film itself, like a randomly generated cellular lullaby.
As for the performances, they are simply faultless, with special kudos to Manville, for whom awards are surely due. A silent close-up of her face as Joan undergoes breast imaging will stay with me forever – in her eyes we see fear, anxiety and a hint of loneliness, mixed with a strange cocktail of acceptance and challenge, and something that still manages to look like loving.