The snow is snowing and the
wind is blowing
But I can weather the storm!
What do I care how much it may storm?
For I’ve got my love to keep me warm
The mood for Ordinary Love is set at the start as we hear Billie Holliday singing Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” We know that this is a story about love, and about storms. But it is not about a stormy relationship, as many relationship films are. It is about what love means in the midst of a storm so severe, it may destroy everything.
Joan and Tom (Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson) are a couple who have been together for decades. They are comfortable around each other. Even their little spats seem to be little jokes between them. Theirs is a happy life. But then Joan finds a lump in her breast. When it turns out to be cancer, the couple finds themselves in a year-long storm. It is not so much that their love will be tested in this time, but more as in that opening song, it will be about whether that love is enough to sustain them.
The film follows the couple through doctor appointments, surgeries, chemotherapy and its aftermath, and months of uncertainty. But the focus isn’t really about all those things. In fact, as awful as some of those things are, the film glosses over some of the pain and suffering involved. The real point is to see the emotional struggles that these two loving people must navigate.
I should point out that I’ve lived this film. Nine years ago was the year that my wife and I refer to as “The Year of Cancer”. As she went through breast cancer treatment, we did many of the same things that Tom and Joan do in this film. Screenwriter Owen McCaffery also lived this story along with his wife. That, no doubt, is why the film seemed so spot on for me. It isn’t a romanization of such a relationship. It is a frank depiction of the ways a relationship is consumed for that period.
It also shows us the ways this emotional journey is different for the two. In an early scene, when Joan is going to be having a mammogram, we see Joan in a room with other women also waiting for her procedure. They are all a bit apprehensive, but can smile at each other in their commonality. At the same time Tom in another waiting room filled with men. Theirs is a much more awkward silence, with a different set of worries and fears.
But my favorite scene in this vein is as Joan is having her lumpectomy, she dreams of being on a train pulling slowly out of a station. Looking out the window she sees a worried looking Tom watching her depart. This is a clear reminder that this is above all Joan’s story and journey. Tom may be along for the ride, but it is a much different experience than he will have.
The different journeys also are displayed when Joan is able to talk to another cancer patient about his treatments. Peter (David Wilmot) has a terminal cancer. He is considering stopping treatment, which only delays the inevitable. But his younger husband Steve (Amit Shah) is distraught at the thought. For Peter and Joan, it is clear that they are the ones who have the final word here. For Steve and Tom, while they may have their own wants and desires, it is important to celebrate the time that they have—and find a way to make that time the best it can be.
I very much like the implication of the title. Because although we may think of this storm in Joan and Tom’s live as very severe, it doesn’t portray the love they share through it all as anything heroic. It is ordinary love. It is the way love is supposed to work. It is supposed to keep us warm no matter how dark clouds and how strong the winds.