Director: Aleem Khan
Stars: Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss
Actor Nasser Memarzia barely appears in After Love, but his character – Ahmed – is present in every scene. A Pakistani immigrant married to a white British woman Mary/Fahina (Joanna Scanlan), Ahmed lives a transitory life thanks to his work, which sees him spending as much time at their home in Dover as he does across the English Channel in Calais. Ahmed dies within the first five minutes of the picture, leaving his now-widow Mary distraught and displaced. She is firmly fixed within the local Muslim community, having converted when she met her former love. She remains true to her faith.
As she begins to grieve, Mary discovers a surprising French connection that she was hitherto unaware of; another woman in Ahmed’s life. The mysterious ‘G’ in her former husband’s phone stands for Genevieve (Nathalie Richard). Mary makes up her mind to cross the channel and confront this woman, but her apprehension leads to a misunderstanding about her purpose on Genevieve’s doorstep, and she assumes the role of cleaner for her late husband’s mistress, discovering not long after that Genevieve and Ahmed have a teenage son; Solomon (Talid Ariss), and neither of them know that Ahmed has passed…
Aleem Khan’s feature debut is a deftly handled melodrama that saves up its big emotional moments for short sharp eruptions in the film’s otherwise uneasily calm waters. Scanlan is sensational as Mary; a proud woman protective of the life and love she’s used to define herself, now set adrift with unanswerable questions. The performance is muted, restrained, but not closed off or distant. We feel and understand her hesitancy and her unspoken anger, as well as her desire to reach out to these strangers and know them. When Mary inadvertently learns something very personal about Solomon, a bond is woven between them, and Mary’s long-dormant maternal instincts come flooding to the fore. The queasy dynamic between the three of them grows more wrought with trouble as a result.
In a quietly heart-wrenching scene, Mary scrutinises her belly in a mirror, lifting and stretching the skin as though Ahmed’s motives might somehow reveal themselves. Scanlan is a wonderful choice for the role. We’re not often afforded larger women on screen in leading roles, let alone over a certain age. Scanlan is immensely generous in what she brings to the piece in this regard. Khan presents us a middle aged woman very cautiously re-evaluating her sexuality. It’s handled judiciously, but this element is undeniably present and feels as radical in terms of representation as her religious positioning in society.
One of the key moments in After Love occurs early on as Mary is leaving Dover on the ferry. Looking back at the iconic white cliffs, she observes a large section as it breaks away and crashes to the shore below. Nobody else on deck reacts to this, prompting the suspicion that this is something for Mary alone, and that the event represents the first in a series of seismic shifts. Later, the event is echoed when, laying in bed and staring up at the ceiling, an emerging crack dusts her with plaster. Something new is emerging, and the events of After Love chart a transition from one mode of living to another. By the film’s end – when we are once more reminded of the cliff fall – a new kind of emotional geography has been mapped between these three people.
I saw After Love in a near-deserted cinema (in fairness, it was a matinee screening on a scorching hot and sunny Saturday). Still, in the current climate I imagine this will be the story for Khan’s film as it saunters through a scant number of theatres for a period of two or three weeks in the UK. It’s a great shame that something of this quality seems to struggle to draw curious punters. In truth this is a superbly observed and portioned out drama. There are no twists or shock revelations per se, once you’re past the establishing set-up, but the manner in which Khan commands and delivers his tale is comparable to the confident dramatic flex of Christian Petzold unfurling another of his steely potboilers. This deeply felt and measured kitchen sink drama is, quietly, one of the better films to have appeared so far this year.