‘After Love’ review: Personal and cultural divisions lead to beautiful beginnings
As the crow flies, only about 30 miles separate the port cities of Dover and Calais – a distance that in many parts of the world would cover no greater change in culture than a slight shift in emphasis. When those miles are filled with the English Channel, however, the opposite coasts represent opposite worlds, where everything from language to sexual mores are poles apart. It’s a short but jolting journey, an exercise in social and geographical disorientation that British-Pakistani filmmaker Aleem Khan explores with thoughtful, layered effect in his auspicious debut feature ‘After Love’.
Galvanized by Joanna Scanlan’s quiet, searing turn as a white Muslim widow piecing together the separate lives her late husband led on both shores, Khan’s debut confidently mixes old-school melodrama with contemporary political conscience, suggesting broader cross-cultural friction in the Brexit era while retaining an intimate domestic focus. Shortlisted for the canceled 2020 Cannes Film Festival Critics’ Week programme, Khan’s unassuming debut enjoyed solid arthouse success in its home turf, winning the British Independent Film Awards. last year and garnering some major BAFTA nominations. A North American distributor, however, has yet to step forward for a film that is by no means limited in its cultural resonance to the narrow strip of southern England and northern France that it explores in an evocative way.
Although “After Love” launches an intriguing career for its young writer-director, already BAFTA-nominated for his short film work, it is equally notable as a late big-screen breakthrough for Scanlan, a well-regarded character actor. , best known in the UK for his television comedy work (“Getting On”, “The Thick of It”) and an invaluable supporting presence in such British heritage pictures as “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and ” The Invisible Woman”. But she has never before been gifted with such a demanding lead role as the one she pulls off here. As Mary, a bereaved housewife of Dover caught between lived, imagined and hidden lives, she brings fundamental emotional conviction to a character whose decisions sometimes come from a soap opera, and deftly tries out the various splintered identities of a white woman committed to the Muslim Faith whom she adopted out of love, even more adrift and incognito as a Briton in France.
After a brief prologue alluding to warm and placid marital contentment, we cut to Mary in the immediate throes of mourning her husband Ahmed, a ferry captain who spent his days commuting on the water to Calais and back – regularly sampling continental life that she had hitherto been happy to gaze upon from the shore. The local Muslim community supports her in her grief, but she prefers isolation; she and Ahmed never had children, and there is no mention of her blood relatives, hinting at painful ties severed during cultural clashes decades before. This kind of unspoken angst is typical of Khan’s lean and precise script, at least in the set-up stages; the burning burdens are later discharged vocally.
Yet as Mary, unconditionally devoted, sorts through Ahmed’s belongings, fragments of a double life emerge: a Frenchwoman’s ID card in her wallet, intimate voicemails on her phone. Her curiosity takes her across the Channel to the Calais address of Geneviève, a cutting-edge and chic mum working girl (a superb Nathalie Richard). When we meet Genevieve’s biracial son, Solomon (Talid Ariss), it becomes clear that her relationship with Ahmed has been long and storied. Mistaking Mary, in her modest salwar kameez, for an immigrant housekeeper, Genevieve unwittingly lets her love compete in her home. Panicked, Mary accepts the misunderstanding, with all the messy consequences one would expect.
If Khan’s writing never quite sells us on this key artifice, “After Love” makes up for that leap with the sheer authenticity of its day-to-day observation. Many of the film’s most vivid and touching scenes detail the ordinary affairs of Mary’s home life and her relationship to religion, performed by Scanlan with careful attention to physical gestures and routine. We watch her silently praying, but even making roti, handling the dough with palpable tenderness, becomes its own kind of quasi-spiritual ritual. Khan counters this whispering realism, meanwhile, with sharp breaks in dissociative fantasy reflecting Mary’s inner turmoil: in her daydreams, a ceiling cracks, crumbles and floods, and the white cliffs of Dover crumble in powder.
The film’s political commentary also emerges in flashes and cracks. The sporadic overlaps and chasms in Marie and Geneviève’s respective experiences point to shared histories of subjugation as women, with and without children – but also very different relationships to the cultural and religious mix, shaped both by psychology national and personal. A strange element of this complex family crisis further complicates matters, in a way teased but not fully explored by a film that already has plenty of conflict, both latent and conflicting, to negotiate. Spare and uncluttered in every way, from performance to its clean and airy aesthetic, “After Love” carries bulky baggage with elegant lightness, leaving its audience with extra unboxing to do.