Hospital movies always risk the dreaded, unfairly snobbish comparison to their TV equivalents, the medical procedural shows that have become a small-screen staple. From daytime to primetime, such series offer high-stakes drama and low-key reassurance by portraying the processes of diagnosis and treatment the public can expect if they are stricken by illness, alongside the heroics and brilliance of the professionals striving to help them.
United Kingdom 2019
Certificate 12A 92m 8s
Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Joan Lesley Manville
Tom Liam Neeson
Peter David Wilmot
Steve Amit Shah
And in this Belfast-set story about a woman diagnosed with breast cancer, television is a constant presence. At home or at hospital, flat-screens glow with local news and sport – distracting patients from the tedium of unpleasant procedures, or drowning out cries of pain from a bedroom upstairs. At a funeral, a bereaved man jokes that in his partner’s last weeks, “I’ve never watched so much rubbish TV in my life.” And, he adds, he loved it.
Even at first glance, Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s Ordinary Love offers more than any hour of TV could – it’s there in the cachet of its two big-screen stars, Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. They play Joan and Tom, a retired couple living in Belfast, who pass their days bickering amiably and fretting about their wellness: they take daily walks to appease their Fitbits, ponder giving up caffeine and lament the sugar levels in cartons of tomato juice.
There’s such an appealing ease to their relationship – the goofing about that turns into cuddling, Tom’s terrible jokes and Joan’s witty comebacks – that it’s easy to believe they’ll weather this storm too, but perhaps inevitably the relationship buckles under the strain. Joan snaps at Tom and accuses him of selfishness – that isn’t true, but he does have small secrets. He breaks the cancer news to Debbie’s grave against Joan’s wishes, smokes a cigarette outside the hospital, and in a touching effort to exert some control, furtively replaces his dead goldfish with a new one so Joan won’t be upset by its demise.
It seems almost unnecessary to report that Manville’s performance is exquisite: from the concern, boredom and fear that flicker across her face during a mammogram, to convulsions of violent pain, to resilient smiles beneath an awkwardly styled wig. Neeson, dialling back on his leading-man urgency as affably irritating Tom, is totally her match. It’s a jolt at first to see these two actors strolling around Tesco in their anoraks or trailing up and down endless corridors and motorways for Joan’s treatments, but it’s true too that their gentle and sparky delivery enlivens dialogue that is burdened with medical terminology and well-worn truisms about the Big C.
Their powerhouse performances ensure that this drama doesn’t just warm the heart, but chills the soul a little too. Under general anaesthetic, Joan dreams of being isolated in an empty train carriage. The message of Ordinary Love is less that one’s partner is a rock, and rather that despite our loved one’s best efforts, we’re all on this journey alone.