Ordinary Love marks the third film and something of a departure for Northern Irish directing duo by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn who came to attention with Cherrybomb (2009) – a rauchous coming-of-age drama set in contemporary Belfast – and Good Vibrations (2012) – set around the eponymous Belfast record shop and its notorious proprietor Terry Hooley – during the Troubled 1970s. Both met with critical success with the later especially praised for its warmth and energy in spite of being set during “the grimmest period in the grimmest city in the western world” (Donald Clarke). For their third film, they have again stay focused on character and Northern Irish settings in an artfully realized story of mid-life cancer and coupledom.
The story is simple: a middle-aged couple Tom and Joan (Liam Neeson, Leslie Manville) is shunted from the familiar grooves of their quiet existence following her diagnosis with breast cancer. The film follows the ups and downs of Joan’s subsequent struggle – medical and emotional – as she embarks on an extended process of treatment and eventual recovery. Along this journey their relationship is tested, they encounter another couple in comparatively worse circumstances than their own and recall the loss of their daughter in sudden circumstances some years earlier. While the film’s conclusion brings mixed emotions, the filmmakers avoid any easy conclusions about cancer or its meaning, preferring to quietly return its characters to everyday life.
The screenplay for Ordinary Love developed from the personal experiences of Belfast screenwriter Owen McCafferty and his wife. McCafferty is a well established playwrite whose previous drama Unfaithful (2014) also focused on the pressures of mid-life marriage though – as the title suggests – in more contentious circumstances. That play forgrounded themes of disappointment and frustration and was judged to offer “an understated fulness in its portrait of a marriage gone stale” during its short run at the 2014 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. While Ordinary Love revisits similar territory with comparable methods McCafferty’s friend, renowned soundtrack composer David Holmes (Ocean’s 11, Hunger) saw the cinematic potential of this deeply personal experience and had the reputation and experience push it forward. (Holmes is the film’s producer and composer of its restrained electronic soundtrack). Building on his talents and themes in theatre, the film thus represents a considerable scaling up for McCafferty in terms of casting, production values and audience reach while still remaining true to its NI origins, with the distribution rights being picked up by US indie distributor Focus Features/Universal Pictures even before it was finished. Neeson and Manville came on board based on an early draft and their casting were central to such transatlantic interest. The screenplay is both understated and profound, qualities embued by the central performances and every element of the production.
Essentially a two-handed drama, the Tom and Joan are clearly defined but entirely interdependent; it is impossible – for us and them – to imagine their story as anything but collective. The film’s co-directors have an unusual and similarly mutual creative relationship, planning in detail months before rehearsals and shooting begins and then working collaboratively on set. While Barros comes from a writing background and concentrates on casting and the actors, Leyburn previously worked as a graphic designer and tends to the more technical aspects of production. The film benefits in evident ways from this combination: a modulated narrative which is performed with nuance and restraint and framed within a modernist visual sensibility, with minimal camera movement, artful compositions and a striking use of light and colour.
Indeed, so careful is the film’s production design that while the film’s two central settings – the house and the hospital – are shot on location in and around Belfast, they are imbued with formal aesthetics beyond their naturalistic function, simultaneously recognisable and vividly expressive. While the hospital is all blues and whites, evoking a cooly clinical and at times futuristic environment (compounsed by a gliding camera, scanning technologies and eerily de-personalized operating theatres), the house is muted and melancholic; its interior all browns and greens, its inhabitants more often sillouteted against the light outside than fully lit within. The cool mise-en-scène of this setting in particular (the film is shot in widescreen, an unusual choice for a domestic drama) evokes recent arthouse films such as A Single Man (Ford, 2009) or Caché (Haneke, 2005), also stories of mid-life crisis which foreground the home as a site of instability and/or threat. Along with the cancer diagnosis, a clue to this sombre tonality is provided by a single photo on the mantlepiece of a young woman in graduation robes. We subsequently learn that this is their daughter Debbie who died suddently some eyars ago in unspecificed circumstances. The house, and the lives of her parents have remained suspended in the amber of grief ever since. (At one point Joan reports that Tom simply “stopped” following her death).
Positioned between these past and future settings, the couple travel to and from the hospital, increasingly anxious and bickering, submitting to tests and treatments, hopeful that the threat will recind. On each occasion the directors offer us shots of the interior of the intermittently abandoned house; a half opened door, an empty bedroom, a dining table. Portents of mortality that evoke Philip Larkin: “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left / Shaped to the comfort of the last to go / As if to win them back . . .”. For now however they have each other and it is the dynamicism of their love that the film follows with emphatic tenderness and truthfulness.
Neeson and Manvill’s Tom and Joan conjure a seasoned and quietly joyful love. There are few scenes of domesticity but many of intimacy, which the film makers and performers work to establish as having evolved over a long time, through a range of verbal and gestural acts. Indeed the film is particuarly successful at bringing this intimacy to an almost ritulaized level, where words and actions are less acts of creation governed by functionality than repetition and recreation. Their roles and scripts are familiar. When at the outset Joan asks Tom to check if there is a lump on her breast he casually remarks “lumps and bumbs, you’re not getting any younger kid”, a petname he uses affectionately and repeatedly. Elsewhere Joan responds with playful put-downs: “Tom for once in your life can you try to be normal”. When her hair beings to fall out, Tom remains in his teasing-affectionate mode: “You look beautiful – but then I never really liked your hair to begin with”. Gestures have a similarly engrained feel. The film opens and closes with a tracking shot of a walk along a seafront promenade with the couple walking hand in hand silouetted against the seascape/skyline. When they reach a particular point, Tom unconsiously reaches out to a tree trunk and gently swings them around to walk back. Their actions and interaction are observed, not heard with the clear sense that they have done this on many occassions. The repeating of this scene at the film’s conclusion is particuarly effective, with Tom putting an unconsiously caring and protective hand on Joan’s back as they walk away from the camera, into the future.
With the cancer diagnosis and treatment their easy banter – “how doe the fitbit know how much you’ve walked” – takes on an increasingly terse tone and as Joan’s suffering intensifies the screenplay contains one particuarly bitter exchange. It takes place during the chemotheraphy phase of treatment and when Joan asks Tom for painkillers. Ever fastidious, he reprimands her for not writing down the correct order for taking them but this quickly escalates. Impatient with his chastisements Joan accuses him of trying to co-option her predicament: “Whose pain is this – mine or yours … This isn’t about you”. “We’re both going through this”, he replies. “No Tom, no we’re not – I am – I’m going through cancer, I’m going through chemo… ”.
The argument represents a rare moment of anger and disharmony in their relationship, although they bicker on other occasions and for similar reasons – when Joan feels Tom is overstepping her status as the patient. (She asks him not to so forcefully intervene in discussions with her onchologist – “Its embarrassing”). The eruption does however offer a glimpse of another dimension of longtime companionship – the submersion of the individual – as well as the emotional labour and stress of spousal care-giving amongst ageing couples. This latter aspect is particuarly underappreciated and underrepresented in our society but – as the mere existence of a film like Ordinary Love suggests – likely to come more to the fore in the years ahead as western populations age rapidly.
And it is in this respect – the theme of aging – that the film, which remains a hermetic and specific narrative on so many levels and apparently working outside of recogizable genre conventions, might be found to intersect with wider trends and concerns. It is notable for instance that along with its moderist aesthetics the filmmakers erase – or at least minimize – geographical landmarks or social context for the story which, notwithstanding a large number of Northern Irish accents, focalizes the couple and their private struggle. While this might be considered illustrative of a post-ceasefire dispensation in Northern Irish cinema (a permission to move beyond politics), the film nonetheless connects with the growing visibility of ageing in contemporary popular culture in general and the ageing couple in particular.
It might for instance be compared to recent texts such as 45 Years, Le Weekend and Bernard MacLaverty’s 2017 novel Midwinter Break (currently being adapted for the screen) or the more gruelling Iris and Amour. While all centre on ageing couples, the latter two, like Ordinary Love foregrounding illness and the theme of spousal care and, curiously it is notable that it is men that fulfil the primary care role in all three]. Ordinary Love is distinctive in foregrounding a “younger” couple than the others, although not long ago Neeson and Manville, aged 67 and 64 respectively, might have been considered “old”. But it shares with these texts a contemporary interest in ageing in contemporary European film which frames its subject in terms of the white, middle-class couple, relatively insulated from social shocks or striving, and turned inwards. The couples in these stories are post-employment yet relatively prosperous, their roles as workers or care-giving parents are past, their social circles diminished or even disappeared and their days are filled with essentially leisure-time and activities of consumption such as shopping, travel or coffee shops [the supermarket is the third location in Ordinary Love]. Additionally, such characters are frequently played by respected “elder” stage/screen actors and as such bring associations of both culture and “national” values, lending otherwise enclosed narratives broader social resonance.
While Haneke’s Amour is the most extreme instance of this recent narrative, confronting a harrowing end of life scenario, it nonetheless shares similarities with Ordinary Love including themes of declining body and spousal care. It is also notable that both films (as well as Iris) frame these themes in gendered terms with care coming from the male while it is the female who physically suffers: this is the direction and meaning of love in both titles. The casting of Neeson in this role is not insignificant: he virtually invented the “geri-action” genre with the Taken films. While Ordinary Love returns Neeson to home territory (in terms of its setting and location), and his character is insistently attentive and loving, he maintains a physical completeness and manliness in the role that quietly but unequivocally maintains gender norms.
If Ordinary Love offers a more optimistic treatment of ageing than Amour, it is partly because it imagines these issues in relation to a younger couple but primarily because it takes a far more hopeful view of the health service on which its central characters depend. While health professionals in the film remain realistic in their diagnosis (“nothing is normal”) they remain conspicuously peripheral, the camera usually preferring to remain focused on the central characters. Tom and Joan – and the film’s POV – faithfully submit themselves to a system that is accessible, sophisticated and ultimately successful. Compare this to say the experience of characters in The Life and Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) or even Amour and the film emerges as much a celebration of the extraordinary and endangered NHS as it is of the “ordinary love” between a couple who, back in the supermarket (their status as both healthy consumers reasserted) are last seen gently squabbling about how many Brussels sprouts to buy.
 “Producer Brian Falconer discusses Ordinary Love with IFTN”. 1 March 2020. http://www.iftn.ie/news/featureinterviews/?act1=record&only=1&aid=73&rid=4293124&tpl=archnews&force=1
 Donnar, Glen. “Narratives of Cultural and Professional Redundancy: Ageing Action Stardom and the ‘geri-action’ Film”. Communication, Politics & Culture 49 (2016): 1-18.