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TIFF 2019: 1982, Ordinary Love, Blackbird

Romantic movies can be just as full of tension as any thriller, keep viewers on the edge of their seats like a horror movie or earn cheers from its audiences like an action-packed blockbuster. Much like these genres, they don’t always get the respect they deserve. While these three stories of love that recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival are more subdued than the average romcom or less melodramatic than a great domestic tragedy, their sentiments can still be felt by almost anyone who watches these films. 

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The first of these love stories is Oualid Mouaness’ “1982,” a sensitive slice-of-life drama set in Lebanon before the breakout of war. At that point, the biggest worry for Wissam (Mohamad Dalli) is whether or not his crush would ever notice him. There’s some drama among his friends and teachers (one of whom is played by “Capernaum” director Nadine Labaki) as Wissam tries to navigate the perilous art of elementary school courtship, but all of these mundane concerns are pushed to the side as soon as warplanes soar overhead and the bombings get closer and closer. Will Wissam get the chance to tell his crush how he feels or will he make a rookie mistake? This charming movie has such a wonderful ensemble cast with characters that feel like they each have their own backstory that it’s easy to get swept up in the tension even before the bomber planes make their appearance. Mouaness uses his protagonist’s youthful look at the world to include a sweet animated sequence where Wissam imagines an anime drawn machines like “Gundam Wing” are the real sources behind the scary noises he’s never heard before. The movie explores what it’s like for a child to make sense of senseless violence.

In Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s “Ordinary Love,” the love between Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville) is much more established. They’re a couple with many years behind them, to the point where Joan feels comfortable making jokes at Tom’s expense and he feels at ease ignoring his wife to watch sports on the TV instead. However, their lived-in comfort gets a shock when Joan is diagnosed with cancer. Now their “ordinary love” is challenged as they find a new normal. Neeson’s recent controversy notwithstanding, this is totally Manville’s movie. She’s great at playing the several parts Joan fulfills in her relationship with Tom and the internal struggle of coming to terms with cancer. Neeson, to his credit, takes a step back and lets Manville do much of the emotional heavy lifting. There’s a push and pull between two great actors that keeps the air between them charged even as Manville is playing a woman in the throes of chemotherapy and Neeson fulfills the role of her husband in numb disbelief. 

Love can also mean having to say goodbye even when you’re not ready. Roger Michell’s “Blackbird” is closest to feeling like a melodrama, but it shows a love story of a different kind: a family’s. Dying from a terminal illness, Lily (Susan Sarandon) gathers her brood for one final happy weekend before disease robs her of the ability to control her body. Paul (Sam Neill), Lily’s husband, operates a bit like Tom does in “Ordinary Love”—with a stoic, removed air about his wife’s illness—but with an extra level of attentiveness to her wavering movements. Things get complicated when Lily’s daughters, Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska), arrive. Each of whom are dealing with their own personal issues and are struggling to accept their mother’s wishes to die with dignity. As you can guess, the film’s star-studded cast is its main appeal, but some of the dialogue within the family rings false in a way that distracts from the story and the acting. “Blackbird” is the English language remake of a Danish film called “Silent Heart,” and both films share the same writer, Christian Torpe. While not all the notes in this film may work in harmony, it’s the love in the story—between the characters and in the actors’ performances—that holds the movie together and makes it work.

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