I remember lying in the hospital bed the day after my admission to St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis, an admission resulting from a stubborn case of dehydration and worsening infections that wouldn't respond to outpatient intervention.
I was already a paraplegic/double below-knee amputee living with spina bifida, but I'd been relatively stable for over 30 years until this mid-November Sunday afternoon when I finally decided, after several days of barely keeping any food down and several days of dizziness turning into falls, that I'd best get everything checked out.
My emergency room visit turned into what was expected to be an overnight stay. My overnight stay turned into several days and nights of non-stop IV fluids and IV antibiotics around-the-clock as infections worsened and I became sicker. Before it was all over 10 days later, I would lose the remainder of my left leg and go through several days where even the most basic activities of self-care were beyond my ability.
The nurses? They wouldn't call it love. It was just nursing.
But, they loved me back to life.
So did the aides, often visiting my room multiple times a shift due to a body that was spewing body fluids like Old Faithful but with much less predictability.
After 10 days, I left the hospital and returned home to outpatient home health and an agenda that included re-learning how to transfer to a toilet, how to take a shower, how to get dressed, and trying to figure out how to rebuild my life.
Just over three months later, I'm a couple weeks away from at least trying to return to work. I'm fumbly and bumbly, but I can take a shower. I can transfer to the toilet. I can dress myself. I can get in/out of my car, at least most days, though it's difficult and painful and time-consuming.
I'm not married. So, I suppose I shouldn't be able to identify with Ordinary Love, the exceptional new film from co-directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn about a couple, Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville), who are at the ordinary stage of an extraordinary love having been married long enough to have established decades of comfort and rapport and intimacies both commonplace and quite rare. They aren't strangers to trauma within their lives, but when Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer not even decades of familiarity can fully bridge the gap between Joan's experiences with diagnosis and treatment and Tom's ever-present support that is still, when it comes down to it, on the other side of the wall.
While my recent hospitalization was only briefly life-threatening, I am many years past what was my life expectancy. I feel this in my bones on a daily basis. I feel it in my heart and my mind and my body. I feel it in my daily activities and nearly all of my decisions.
You can love me, and many do, but you can never know what it's truly like. It's not your journey. It's mine.
But, please don't stop loving me. That's part of the journey, too.
Tom companions Joan beautifully, dutifully shaving his head when hers begins to fall out. It's a cliche', I suppose, but as a society we continue to celebrate whenever we read about someone else doing it. But, it's a choice for Tom. For Joan, it's a matter of life and death. You can see Joan's response on Manville's expressive face, a masking expression of gratitude concealing an awareness that it's different for her and she knows it and Tom, it would seem, doesn't quite grasp that there's a difference.
But still, he's doing something.
Ordinary Love is the first screenplay from Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty and it's a magnificent one that captures the little nuances and the familiar benchmarks. Inspired by his own wife's experience with breast cancer, McCafferty has crafted a story that masters all the minute details and simple moments that often comprise the cancer journey. It certainly won't mirror everyone's cancer journey, but Ordinary Love rather beautifully portrays the firm foundation that undergirds Tom and Joan as they head into this journey and how that foundation helps them as both experience the stages of grief in vastly different ways. Even Joan's discovery of the "lump" radiates a simple honesty and matter-of-factness that resonates. We travel through the mammogram, the blood tests, the diagnosis, the chemo, the treatments, and so much more.
You might be saying to yourself "I don't need yet another cancer flick," but Ordinary Love is different. If anything, it's almost as much about the love that helps us survive as it is the cancer itself. The film avoids unnecessarily graphic content, instead often deferring to the uncomfortable moments between Tom and Joan as they experience the broad spectrum of emotions and experiences. We see the bonding that occurs between patients, and it does, when Joan spies one of her daughter's former teachers (David Wilmot) in a waiting room.
They talk. They connect. They understand. A bridge is built and no matter how much Tom loves Joan it's a bridge he simply can't build.
There are other moments, many small moments actually, that ring simple yet true.
Ordinary Love is filled with truth and honesty and the kind of intimacy that one gets after decades of marriage when even the uncommon is commonplace.
While Liam Neeson largely has top billing here, the simple truth is that Ordinary Love is Lesley Manville's film. She's simply extraordinary here, a swirling rainbow of hopefulness and despair, optimism and rage, determination and surrender. Neeson knows his place here, wisely underplaying to Manville's wide range of emotions. Neeson wants their everyday intimacy to be enough and it's simply not always enough - yet, he never quits and neither does she.
Ordinary Love possesses an emotional honesty that is rare, a willingness to rest in the silences and to trust that the unspoken intimacy between a couple can be portrayed on the big screen without histrionics.
It can. It is.
Music by David Holmes and Brian Irvine is sublime, occasionally serene and always emotionally in-tune with the scene unfolding. Piers McGrail's lensing is unswerving and never looks away from joy and sorrow and grief and rage. We become such close observers that it's practically unnerving. Nigel Pollock's production design is possessed of an ordinariness that feels immersive and comfortable.
Seemingly unfolding in Ireland, Ordinary Love also quietly celebrates the UK's respected NHS in small yet meaningful ways. For those of us in the United States, there's bound to be a chuckle when Tom laments having to pay for parking even when Joan is patient.
Ordinary Love is a beautiful film that deserves more than its February release. It's a film that takes a familiar story and makes it feel fresh and meaningful and memorable. It's a film about an ordinary love that is truly extraordinary.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic