After Love arrives in UK and Irish cinemas on 4th June.
Over the past few years, we have seen an explosion of fresh new British directing talent. These directors have collectively pushed the boundaries of British cinema, from Rose Glass’ Saint Maud to Henry Blake’s County Lines. They bring fresh insights into modern British life, new perspectives on society, inclusion and belonging, and riveting cinematic journeys. With his debut feature After Love, director Aleem Khan proves to be another of these shining lights, his self penned first feature, nothing short of a sublime, fascinating and beautiful slice of modern British cinema. Here, themes of love, secrecy, cultural belonging and loss find a unique, gentle and vibrant voice in the hands of Joanna Scanlan and an exceptional supporting cast, in a journey rich in discussions on intersectionality, escape and identity, and the result is one of the best British movies of 2021 so far.
As the rain pours down, Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) and her husband Ahmed arrive home, their arms cradled with food containers. As they shake off the rain, Mary places the food on the kitchen side while making a mug of tea. Meanwhile, Ahmed walks into the lounge and sinks into his favourite armchair. As the couple casually discuss the night’s events, Mary strolls from the kitchen to the lounge, tea in hand, but Ahmed is now silent and slumped in his seat. Mary frantically tries to wake him, but he is dead, and life has sharply and dramatically changed in the space of a few minutes. From this opening scene onwards, director Aleem Khan grabs your attention and never let’s go.
Mary and Ahmed’s marriage had survived the social, cultural, and religious taboos and discrimination faced by many of those who chose a multicultural relationship during the 70s and 80s in Britain. Their love was born during their teens as they kept one another hidden from their respective parents, and as time moved on and their passion grew, Mary would opt to embrace Islam as they built a new life in Dover, just a stone’s throw away from Ahmed’s job as a ferry captain.
However, as Mary goes through Ahmed’s belongings, a small card sits hidden in his wallet. Its laminated surface holds the details of a mysterious woman called Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) in Calais. But to add to the mystery, Mary also discovers a string of messages on Ahmed’s phone from Genevieve. As Mary’s mind whirs, she suddenly finds herself contemplating the unthinkable: was Ahmed engaged in an affair? So armed with a small suitcase, Mary travels to Calais to meet the other woman in Ahmed’s life. However, what Mary finds will forever change her life.
It would be easy to label Khan’s film purely as an exquisite exploration of grief, secrecy and a crumbling trust; however, After Love is rich in deep and turbulent undercurrents that take its story beyond these key themes. Here, Kahn explores themes of intersectionality and belonging as Mary’s commitment to Ahmed is pulled sharply into focus, her life choices and decisions both challenged and changed by the actions of a man she trusted – a man who ultimately chose to live a secret life outside of the cultural and social rules Mary accepted.
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Khan’s camera boldly explores the interface between culture, religion and sexuality as Mary’s world collides with another. Here, Khan delicately explores the power of culture and religion in shaping the individual and the dangerous disconnect that can arise under its influence. But, at no time is this exploration of culture and religion simplistic or overly critical. Khan’s movie embraces a core message that faith and belief can co-exist alongside change and intersectionality if individuals and communities allow this to happen. Here, Mary’s faith is central to her confidence in healing and ability to see past her husband’s actions no matter how much they stab at her soul – her husband’s transgressions the door to rebirth, Mary’s strength and belief expanding as the white cliffs of Dover crumble away.
That brings me to the outstanding, delicate and bold performance of Joanna Scanlan, who carries Khan’s film with a stunning character study. Scanlan injects After Love with a quietly riveting and emotional core that is without doubt award-winning in every respect. Her silent moments on screen are just as powerful as those wrapped in dialogue. Add the equally impressive performances of Nathalie Richard and Talid Ariss, and After Love burns with dramatic intensity. Khan’s movie has no intention of offering its audience a simplistic end or easily defined message. Instead, he provides us with a film steeped in themes of identity, belonging, and lies, and as the credits roll, it’s clear that Mary’s journey is just beginning.
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