Ordinary Love (2019)

I found this on a list BFI released of "10 Great Christmas Films of the 21st Century," along with a mix of movies we've seen and ones we haven't (all of which of course went right on my watchlist). While I agree Ordinary Love is a worthwhile film, I'm less convinced it makes much sense to call it a "Christmas film," though it does have the holidays bookend the movie, a common use of them. The BFI's synopsis, however, claims this is "about a Belfast couple grappling with chemo over the holidays," which is demonstrably false - the holidays are well over before the disease is diagnosed, and the bulk of their ordeal takes place significantly later. I'm guessing whoever made the list didn't have a chance to rewatch this before finalizing it.

Which is understandable. By their nature, these kinds of lists are typically tossed together at the last minute, and besides - it's not like the movie is unworthy of praise. I just wouldn't call it a Christmas movie, and if we were still holding fast to our rule of only reviewing those, this wouldn't make the cut. But the movie's interesting enough in its own right, and the use of the holidays - however minimal - makes for an interesting case study in the off-season.

As is probably obvious from the subject matter, Ordinary Love is a drama. The film is notable for how focused it is on its leads - only the two main characters seem to have last names, and (unless both my memory and IMDB are mistaken) only two others are even given first names. Somewhat impressively, none of this leapt out at me while I was watching. Credit directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn with controlling the narrative while still feeling natural.

And speaking of people who deserve credit, let's talk stars, Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson. Both deliver fantastic performances, but of the two it's Manville who's truly memorable. She plays Joan, whose life is upended when she discovers she has breast cancer. While the makeup team shouldn't be discounted, it's Manville who really sells the emotional and physical toll the disease takes.

Meanwhile, her husband, Tom, is trying to hide the emotional toll his wife's diagnosis and treatment are taking on him. He's already lost his only daughter (we never get details, but the tragedy hangs over the couple the whole movie), and is terrified by the prospect of losing his wife, as well.

While undergoing treatment, Joan connects with one of her late daughter's former teachers, Peter, who's being treated for terminal cancer. We see the toll this is taking on Steve, Peter's partner, who Tom eventually bonds with.

From a plot standpoint, not much happens beyond this, though Ordinary Love isn't the sort of movie that relies on its story. This is a meditation on love, disease, and death, and the way these affect us. I should mention that Joan does survive, though she's of course physically changed by what she goes through. Physically changed, but not so much changed as a person, an idea she discusses with Peter before he passes away. Meanwhile, Tom changes a great deal - he starts the movie gruff and standoffish, but by the end is a far warmer and more open human being. 

As I said earlier, the holidays here act as bookends, and in that respect serve as a sort of representation of the passing of time. That's all in keeping with the notion that the beginning and ending of a year is a sort of beginning and ending of stories and moments of reflection. We of course see this all the time in media invoking the holidays. What's interesting here is that its two leads undergo very different journeys and arrive at different destinations. Joan is surprised - and even disappointed - to discover she hasn't been transformed into a new person: she ends the year as basically the same woman she started it as, at least on the inside. Meanwhile, while Tom looks the same, there's an unmistakable shift in how he interacts with those around him. The holidays aren't a catalyst for any of this, mind you, but they mark the start and end of this story.

And, again, the movie is quite good. As its title implies, the film is unusually restrained for its genre. The characters feel believable, and what they go through - while of course terrifying - isn't abnormal. The movie doesn't exploit its subject matter to wring tears from its audience's eyes, nor is this manufacturing fanciful obstacles or lessons. It wants Tom and Joan to feel like real people with a real relationship, and it delivers on that premise.

Whether this is something you'll want to track down is going to depend a great deal on how you react to the idea of watching believable characters go through a cancer diagnosis. I expect this could be either cathartic or triggering for those who have been through it - trust your instincts here and act accordingly.

But, at the risk of belaboring the point, there's no need to seek this out specifically during the holidays.