After Love, Aleem Khan’s deeply involving feature debut, starring Joanna Scanlan, is a quietly moving study of devastating grief and unexpected love.
Crossing Channelsby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Joanna Scanlan, known for her biting comedy performances in television series such as The Thick of It and Getting On, is phenomenal in a dramatic role as Mary (Fatima) Hussein, a pious convert to Islam, now middle-aged. Her husband, childhood sweetheart Tariq, for whom she converted years ago, dies suddenly. Her shock and grief is profound. She is surrounded and supported by her Muslim community, yet though she is devoutly observant of Muslim religious practices, and continues to be, there’s a sense that she is somehow apart and no one from her own family is there.
Tariq was a captain of the cross-channel ferry between Dover and Calais, frequently away from their home in Dover. While sorting his clothes after his funeral, Mary finds a French woman’s identity card and messages from her on his mobile. What she thought was a contented, though childless, life with him is heart-wrenchingly torn apart in a moment. She decides to take the ferry to Calais to confront this unknown woman: on the way she rehearses what she will say to her.
However, when the grieving widow turns up on her rival’s doorstep, things take an unexpected turn. Because Mary is in Islamic dress, a shalwar kameez and hijab, the other woman wrongly assumes she is the new cleaner from the cleaning agency. Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) is younger than Mary, blonde and pretty, welcoming and, moreover, very, very nice.
Mary is frozen with grief and rage, and unable to say anything she had prepared to this charming woman who she thinks had stolen her husband. So instead, she goes along with the mistake, taking this unexpected opportunity to have the run of Genevieve’s house and snoop on what her husband’s other life was like. She finds out that he had domesticity here too – Genevieve is waiting for him to return from his shift and does not know yet that he has died – and also a teenage son, Solomon (Talid Ariss), whom she befriends.
Joanna Scanlan’s performance wrings your heartstrings in every little detail. Struck dumb by grief and betrayal, yet somehow also able to empathise with Genevieve and even love her husband’s son with her. Wordless scenes are eloquent: she’s rigid with shock on a sofa while women wail around her; she sees from the ferry the white cliffs of Dover crumble; she examines her used-up, porridgey body in sensible underwear in a full-length mirror; finding her husband’s shirts in the dirty laundry; and she introduces Tariq to traditional Pakistani foods and language (Urdu) that he has grown up ignorant of.
Underpinning the film is acknowledging cultural differences – between England and France, historic rivals; between traditional Islamic heritage and observance and modern society. There’s a subtle sense that the dead man was, like Mary, somehow caught between two cultures and that neither Mary nor Genevieve had the best of him. But it’s what happens afterwards that’s important: how you heal these differences and create your own new future. Love takes courage.
After Love premiered in the Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 4 June 2021 in the UK.
The Critics:‘Outstanding…After Love has the agony of a domestic tragedy and the tension of a Hitchcock thriller’
The Guardian ‘Drama of the highest order’
Cine-Vue ‘A perfectly measured film of simmering tensions’
The Times ‘Brilliant debut’
Evening Standard ‘A tender family drama’
Heat ‘Impeccable performances’
Total Film ‘A stunning performance’
Empire ‘Scanlan’s performance is extraordinary’
Little White Lies Daily Mail The Sun
Live Q&As across the UK
In-person Q&As with director Aleem Khan are taking place over the next week in London, Brighton, Cambridge and Manchester (sold out).
BFI at Home Q&A
To celebrate the release of After Love, a BFI at Home Q&A with director Aleem Khan and actors Joanna Scanlan and Nathalie Richard, hosted by Isra Al Kassi.
Tune in tonight from 19:00 on BFI YouTube.