After Love arrives in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 4th June.
Over the past few years, we have seen an explosion of fresh new talent in British directing. These directors have collectively pushed the boundaries of British cinema, from Rose Glass and Saint Maud to Henry Blake and County Lines. They bring fresh insights into modern British life, new perspectives on society, inclusion and belonging, and riveting cinematic debuts. 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 emotive voice in the hands of Joanna Scanlan and an exceptional supporting cast. The journey we are taken on, rich in discussions on intersectionality, escape and identity. The result, one of the best British movies of 2021 so far.
As the rain pours, Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) and her husband Ahmed arrive home, their arms cradled with food containers. Mary places the food on the side, her priority a mug of tea, as Ahmed walks into the lounge and sinks into his 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, slumped in his seat. And as Mary tries desperately to wake him, she realises he is dead. Her life sharply and dramatically altered in the space of just a few delicate minutes. From this opening scene onwards, director Aleem Khan grabs your attention and never lets go.
Mary and Ahmed’s long 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. Their love for one another starting in teenage life, when they kept each other hidden from their respective parents. Their love and commitment ultimately leading Mary to embrace Muslim culture and belief as they built a 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 shiny surface holding the details of a woman named Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) who lives in Calais. And when Mary also discovers a string of messages on Ahmed’s phone from Genevieve, her fears are realised. And so armed with a small suitcase, Mary travels to Calais. Her mission, to meet the other woman in Ahmed’s life. However, what Mary finds will forever change her. For not only was Ahmed conducting a secretive affair but an alternate existence. One free from the constraints of his religion and culture.
It would be easy to label Khan’s film purely as an exploration of grief, secrecy and crumbling trust. However, the depth of After Love resides in its deep and powerful social undercurrents. Here, Kahn explores themes of intersectionality and belonging as Mary’s commitment to Ahmed is pulled sharply into focus. Her life choices and decisions challenged by the covert 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.
However, Khan does not stop there; his camera boldly exploring the interface between culture, religion and sexuality as Mary’s world is challenged and changed in France. 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 her ability to see past her husband’s actions no matter how much they repetitively stab at her soul.
However, the most powerful undercurrents at play sit within Mary’s rebirth. Her life held at a crossroads with no clear direction of travel after Ahmed’s death until a new purpose suddenly arrives. The transgressions of her husband gently opening the door to a new beginning. Her strength and belief only expanding as Dover’s white cliffs figuratively crumble away, allowing for a new path and new vista. And that brings me to the performance of Joanna Scanlan, who without a doubt carries Khan’s film with her stunning, nuanced and beautiful character study. It is Scanlan who makes After Love quietly riveting and emotionally affecting. Her silent moments on screen just as powerful as those wrapped in dialogue. And when this performance is placed alongside Nathalie Richard and Talid Ariss, After Love burns with a rare dramatic intensity.
After Love has no intention of offering its audience a simplistic happy ending or easily defined final message as the credits roll. Instead, Kahn’s film is a beautiful, emotional and stunning journey into identity, belonging, and constructed reality. A journey that doesn’t end as we leave Mary; in fact, it possibly just begins.
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