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Ordinary Love

Ordinary Love

Ordinary Love is exactly what the first word of its title promises, no more and no less, which is not neither good nor bad; it just is what it is and that's about it — here’s basically a modern example of what Horace called aurea mediocritas.

Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) are an old, though not necessarily elderly, married couple with no children (at least none alive; in fact, they seem to have outlived all of their relatives and friends, assuming they had any to begin with). Tom and Joan are moderately happy, although they seem to be more friends than lovers at this point (nothing wrong with that, mind you).

This comfortable uneventfulness is soon interrupted by a lump in one of Joan's breasts. The first doctor who examines her thinks it's a cyst, but we're all adults here; it would be a very short and prosaic movie if it was anything other than cancer.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers take on the thankless task of trying to inject some suspense into this most predictable of situations. Following a battery of tests, another doctor tells the couple that, all things considered, Joan might have cancer. Or, then again, she might not.

More specifically, he tells them that on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 means she has cancer, and 1 means she doesn't, Joan is a “three”. This leads to a conversation where she and Tom argue over whether three is closer to one than to five. He’s convinced that Joan doesn’t have cancer, while she’s convinced otherwise; to the surprise of absolutely no one, she’s absolutely right. Who woulda thunk it?

Joan undergoes surgery, during which she has a dream wherein she boards a train while Tom is outside by the track. The train starts to pull away with her in it, leaving him behind. Kind of ironic, isn’t it, train-related imagery for such pedestrian symbolism.

The 'suspense' returns after the operation, and Tom and Joan have another conversation, very similar to the previous one, in which they try to determine if the doctor keeping them waiting means that she has good news or bad news.

This dull material is executed better than it deserves, especially the performances of Neeson and Manville. There is nothing wrong or phony here, but nothing new or original either. The film is content to hit all the usual notes in this kind of story, but it lacks the ambition to aim for new heights.

This is not to say that Ordinary Love is not without small pleasures, even when they’re reduced to clichés. For example, Neeson has a bit of fun with the obligatory scene where he speaks to his daughter's tombstone (“Your mother has breast cancer… she told me not to tell you”).

The actor has another brief but satisfying moment that sees him crying after flushing his goldfish down the toilet, though sadly the film can’t leave well enough alone and tacks on a superfluous follow-up scene: Tom is at a pet store looking for a replacement fish; the clerk asks if he was fond of his late fish, and Tom says no — but since we’re all perfectly aware that he wasn't really crying over a dead fish, this scene is both redundant and condescending toward the audience.

As for Manville, her bravura performance is the only risk the movie takes. Moreover, the filmmakers are due credit for devoting as much, if not more, attention to chemotherapy as to cancer itself; they’re not afraid to show that the treatment is almost as bad as the disease, whereas most movies don’t even seem to realize how bad the disease really is.

At the end of the day, however, it all comes to about the same; whether it's cancer, chemotherapy, or both, the point is that Tom and Joan's marriage bends almost to the breaking point under the pressure of illness and treatment, as do all marriages in all cancer movies. Will their relationship survive this trial by fire? Is grass green? Suffice it to say say that Tom and Joan’s sex life experiences a revival.