The subliminal sadness of ordinary love

Undying bond: A still from Ordinary Love

Undying bond: A still from Ordinary Love  

'Ordinary Love' starring Liam Neeson is an affecting portrayal of impending isolation and loneliness

On a recent vacation, I spent an afternoon in a cemetery. On some days, I sense the entire history of a city amongst its dead. On others, the sheer symmetry of the tombs and little chapels is breathtaking. More often than not, these visits feel familiar. Like an event not from the past but the future.

A cemetery is the one space in which I perhaps come the closest to grieving for those I’m yet to lose. A place in which I experience a feeling I’m yet to discover. I’ve never truly lost a loved one, but it remains my greatest fear. I observe mourners who speak to graves. And I try to borrow their longing. Their loneliness. It’s why simple films like Ordinary Love – which screened at MAMI 2019 – affect me so much. Tom (Liam Neeson) who is around 60-something, spends time at his daughter’s grave. He speaks to her. He keeps her updated. He misses her.

Prepping for the end

But I suspect Tom starts to visit the cemetery more once he discovers that his wife of 35 years, Joan (Leslie Manville), is diagnosed with breast cancer. As practice. More than visiting his past, he is preparing for the future. Some couples are torn apart by the demise of their children; Joan and Tom were torn together in a way that allowed their frayed edges completed each other. They clung onto mundanity and routine. They chose to embrace the pain by boring it to death. Instead of escaping one another to preserve the image of their once-perfect family, Joan and Tom escaped towards one another. None of this is explicitly expressed by the film. But we locate the personality of their companionship in what the film doesn’t express: Dramatic romance, intense passion, lofty lust.

As a result, the thought of Tom being completely alone is crippling. It’s not because he’s an emotional man. It’s not because Joan is a charming woman. It’s not because their union is the stuff of legend. It’s – as the title suggests – because their love is ordinary. And comfortable. And lived-in. Like a warm winter sock. Like their brisk morning stroll at the waterfront. Or his penchant for pondering about sweet rubbish, like how a Fitbit would work if people walked without moving their hands. He makes her roll her eyes, she makes him feel accepted and manly.

Till death do us apart

Crisis has made them so compatible, that the prospect of one dying before the other is cruel. In one scene, Joan, who goes through a battery of tests in the hospital, notices Tom through the glass in the door. It is framed in a way that suggests she is stealing a peak through the pearly gates. He is seated in the waiting room – tense and tender at once. He looks helpless and small. And so alone. She does not want to succumb to cancer – not because she wants to live, but because she wants him to live. She knows he isn’t one to gracefully celebrate the memory of their marriage. He won’t be thankful for the life they shared. Instead, he will be hopeless about the emptiness that lies beyond. He will die of a broken heart, and he will have nobody by his side until he does.

I’m not sure why Ordinary Love is more affecting than other movies about impending isolation. It could be that Liam Neeson’s face is wrinkled by creases of loss – his wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident ten years ago. Or that screenwriter Owen McCafferty riffs on his own personal experience of his wife’s cancer. Or that Joan, at one point, concernedly asks Tom if he will miss her breasts. It could be everything, but it's most likely the nothingness of their chemistry.

Lost and found

At some level, I envy the Joans and Toms of this world. I admire what they have, and the fact that they have it without knowing or flaunting it. I smile when I see them – crossing the road, at parks, in movies. But I am also scared for them. So scared that I might be subconsciously programmed to panic, when veering towards acquiring their brand of companionship. It’s not so much the fear of losing a soulmate; it’s the fear of losing myself in her memory that keeps me from fully baring my soul.

That afternoon, an old lady crossed my bench. I recognised her; she had been kneeling by a grave so stoically that she, at least briefly, resembled an angel carved in tombstone. Ten minutes later, she crossed my bench again. And again. I could sense that she was disoriented. She couldn’t find a way out of the cemetery, where her husband now rested. She sat next to me. It was cold and rainy. She was lost. And maybe she didn’t want to be found.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 6:14:33 AM |

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