DIRECTOR: Aleem Khan
CAST: Joanna Scanlan, Nasser Memarzia, Nathalie Richard, Seema Morar, Talid Ariss, David Hecter
RUNNING TIME: 89 mins
BASICALLY…: After burying her husband, Mary (Scanlan) discovers he had been hiding a secret across the English Channel…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review is of the cut shown at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2020 – the UK release date is currently unknown.
Best known for her roles in TV shows like The Thick of It, No Offense, and that one episode of Spaced where she did a marvellous impersonation of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, Joanna Scanlan is revelatory in After Love, which is remarkably her first true lead role in a feature film following numerous supporting roles in films such as The Invisible Woman, Girl with a Pearl Earring and In The Loop.
The actress commands every single scene of writer-director Aleem Khan’s feature debut, often without uttering a single line of dialogue, and beautifully portrays a unique struggle with grief and faith in a film that certainly cuts to the core of your emotions, even with a script that occasionally dabbles in familiar territory.
The film starts as a woman named Mary Hussain (Scanlan), a Dover-based British woman who converted to Islam after marrying a man named Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), suddenly finds herself a widow after he unexpectedly dies. Initially left alone to grieve, Mary’s senses are rattled when she discovers that he had been involved with a French woman named Geneviéve (Nathalie Richard), who lives only twenty-odd miles across the English Channel in Calais. Eager for answers, she catches the ferry over and makes contact with Geneviéve, who employs Mary as her cleaner after she mistakes her as such, only for Mary to quickly discover that Ahmed’s affair is a lot deeper than she had realised when she meets Geneviéve’s teenage son Solomon (Talid Ariss).
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that Mary, who has devoted most of her life to her marriage and her religion, has been royally screwed over by the man she thought she knew inside and out. However, Khan’s film is less a vengeful tale of a woman scorned, but more of a sombre mood piece on the emotional impact left behind by the philanderer in question (who we do not see other than a haunting opening shot, and archive footage from old home videos). Part of Scanlan’s excellent performance revolves around her mere facial expressions, which are buried underneath layers upon layers of devastation when she discovers that she was not the only love in her husband’s life, and to add insult to injury it appears that he led a much more free-spirited and less constricted life with his secret family, as opposed to what seems to have been a very traditional Muslim arrangement with Mary. The actress gently takes us through her painful emotional journey as she starts to take a shining interest in this other family, which she feels is the life she never had, or at least gave up to pursue her one true love, and she holds nothing back in some truly raw scenes which encompass everything from her physique to a complete breakdown of tears. Scanlan’s Mary may have been wronged, but the actress never lets her character descend into a collection of acrimonious actions, and always lets you feel her pain as she makes it through the drama.
Khan’s gentle filmmaking lets you absorb the moody atmospheres of both the Dover cliffsides and the small Calais town and beaches, while letting scenes unfold with as much tension or emotion as they need to, from a pivotal moment where Mary lays down on the beach and lets the waves crash over her, to dinners which very quickly turn into sharp conflicts like a standard episode of EastEnders. On the subject of soap operas, there are certain moments in this film which might as well come with those iconic beats at the end of every episode, although this film is far more artistic than anything the long-running TV soap has ever really done, and the script does sometimes tend to lean towards a conventional unfolding of events which threatens to undermine some of its plausibility. You kind of get the sense of where things are going to end up, some of which are telegraphed very clearly early on, but the characters are well-written enough and the overall filmmaking is steady enough, not to mention the performances are utterly stellar (beyond Scanlan, Nathalie Richard is also excellent as the woman with a conflicted view of her relationship, as is young Talid Ariss who has some fierce moments of adolescence to work with here), that the journey is a smooth one you’re fully comfortable with going on.
Currently, there is no set release date for this film, but when it finally does hit cinemas (or on-demand, as this uncertain climate is currently dictating) it will be interesting to see how this film plays with general audiences. It is a very emotional affair, with universal themes and some truly excellent performances to unpack here, and hopefully its future audiences will be able to bask in its powerful glory soon enough.
SO, TO SUM UP…
After Love is an emotional drama that excels with a story that has universal themes that occasionally descend into familiar soap opera territory, and also contains some truly excellent performances, particularly by Joanna Scanlan who is revelatory in her first true lead turn.