'Ordinary Love' shows a love story that's rarely depicted onscreen
Liam Neeson stars alongside Lesley Manville in this new film about a woman going through breast cancer treatment
There are few stories more familiar in modern life than cancer. Nearly everyone knows someone who has been through the heart-rending process of diagnosis and treatment, seen people they love fight, and not all of them win. Breast cancer is one of the most common types of the disease, with more than two million new diagnoses in 2018 alone.
While a diagnosis of breast cancer affects people of all kinds, common lives, and common loves, don’t normally have their stories told. Ordinary Love, which stars Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville as Tom and Joan and is directed by the husband and wife team of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, tells a story that will be familiar to us all but is rarely depicted on screen. It is a love story not of bright burning passion, but quiet devotion, and shows how we lean on each other through the most difficult times.
“We wanted to celebrate the fact the epic and wonderful and joyful, as well as tragic, parts of life occur in everyday moments of life within everyday lives – within ordinary lives,” Barros D’Sa tells The National. “It’s what we are thinking about when we do the supermarket shopping or wondering how many Fitbit miles we’ve done, or having a petty squabble with our partner. It’s at those times that we’re living the big epic mysteries of life and death, and that’s what it is to be human
“So many people incorporate these big personal dramas into their lives and live them with joy and warmth – just those beautiful moments of human connection. We wanted to draw out the beauty and poetry of moments and celebrate them as really worth presenting on the biggest of screens.”
Ordinary Love is a personal film for all involved, but none more than its screenwriter, Owen McCafferty. A renowned playwright from Belfast, he and his wife Peggy lived this story themselves – the terror of diagnosis, the pain of treatment and the joy of recovery. The film’s producer, David Holmes, urged his friend to tell his story to the world.
“Initially Owen was resistant when David first suggested this, but when Owen stood back and looked at the journey, he realised that this wasn’t a cancer story, it was a love story,” Leyburn says.
Barros D’Sa and Leyburn worked with McCafferty to develop the script from its early stages through their production company Canderblinks Film. After the success of the directors’ 2012 movie, Good Vibrations, about the Belfast punk scene, they were approached by U2 singer Bono, who introduced them to Neeson to discuss an unrelated project he wanted to collaborate with them on.
After getting to know Neeson, what drove him as an actor and what he was interested in as a person, Barros D’Sa and Leyburn decided to do something unconventional – send him a new script in only its first draft, written by their first-time screenwriter friend. Neeson connected with the project immediately and signed on to star in it right away.
It’s not often two actors in their sixties are cast as romantic leads. Manville, 63, and Neeson, 67, wanted to use that rare opportunity to show how significant romance can be at any point in your life, through any circumstances.
“I hope audiences come away thinking they’ve watched a film that is incredibly heartening about the longevity of a beautiful marriage and how a marriage and a relationship can get stronger, even though you may be going through incredible, emotional hardship,” Neeson says.
Manville says that although Tom and Joan are forced to deal with a lot on screen, the pair “
never quite lost this twinkle”. “You should always try to find something or someone to keep life buoyant,” she says.
While the emotional authenticity of the film’s romance was paramount for Barros D’Sa and Leyburn, they took care to make sure that every aspect of Joan’s cancer diagnosis and treatment were as true to real life as could be. They were helped by those who administer those tests and treatments in real life.
“All the procedures that Lesley as Joan goes through in the story are all carried out on screen by real radiologists, real chemo nurses and real mammographers, who are taking her through that process as they would a normal patient,” Barros D’Sa says.
Having real doctors, nurses and technicians around her allowed Manville to submit to the process as a real patient would, knowing she was in the hands of someone who helps people through their cancer fights nearly every day of their lives. Even though the medical professionals had full schedules, they were eager to use their limited free time to work on the film because they felt there were few representations of that process on screen that truly captured the experience, both from a technical and a human perspective. That was something Barros D’Sa and Leyburn never took for granted.
“I had been unaware of the depths, the lengths and the tough nature of that journey,” Barros D’Sa says. “As a lot of the doctors say and some of the patients said, you’ve got to give it a year of your life. You’ve got to put that time aside to focus on going through this.
“The details of that were very much news to me, as were the details of every step that a patient has to go through, and I was just so impressed by all the medical professionals in the care that they take over that journey and the empathy they have for the patients they’re with every day.”
The disease is so heartbreakingly common that even the cast and crew were affected before the film’s release – it came out in the UAE last Thursday. One of the actresses who portrayed a member of the medical staff was diagnosed with breast cancer during the film’s post-production stage and she came to a screening not long after finishing her chemotherapy and before she went into surgery.
After the film ended, she said, just as so many others have since the film came out, that she was struck by how closely it mirrored her own experience. Barros D’Sa says, “That was incredibly moving for us.”
Ordinary Love is showing in cinemas across the UAE
Updated: February 13, 2020 03:26 PM