Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

After Love is in cinemas.

In the days after her husband Ahmed’s sudden death, Muslim-convert Mary – a career-best performance by Joanna Scanlan – discovers that he has a lover on the other side of the English Channel and sets out from her Dover home to confront her.

Building on a run of British films that channel deeply personal stories (Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy, 2018; Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, 2019), Aleem Khan’s After Love is a quietly devastating exploration of loss that troubles mainstream representations of contemporary English identity.

Just as London started creaking out of lockdown, I sat down in the chilly April sunshine to talk to Khan about the personal and political underpinnings of his project.

Aleem Khan

Will Massa: After Love is quietly political in its way – how did the evolving political situation in the UK shape its five-year development period?

Aleem Khan: The film is deeply political for me, but I like that you’ve absorbed the politics quietly. Over the five years it took to write the film, the refugee crisis in Calais presented itself on our doorstep, and then Brexit happened. Although the film isn’t exploring these events explicitly, they absolutely changed the way I thought about identity, nationhood, class and religion.

Right now we have a prime minister who refers to Muslim women as letterboxes and, on the other side of the Channel, France has a president who ushered in a bill that effectively strips Muslim women of their religious autonomy.

I have always wanted to see a person as beautifully complex as my mother on screen, and so I wrote a story about a white Muslim convert; an older, larger-framed Muslim woman who is the centre of her own story.

The premise is so engaging – how much of it was based on your personal history?

A lot of the details at plot level are not autobiographical, but the emotional guts of the film are much closer to home. My parents lost a daughter, my sister, when she was only six months old. I don’t remember anything about her, but the fallout from her death inevitably saturated me and my siblings. In many ways the project has been a way for me to work through a feeling of loss that I’ve always carried about me but never fully understood.

I have always wanted to see a person as beautifully complex as my mother on screen, and so I wrote a story about a white Muslim convert.

The locations were very close to home, too; I grew up in Kent and my grandparents lived in Folkestone. I spent my childhood summers on those cliffs and I was always intrigued by the proximity of another world ‘over there’ and just out of reach.

Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard and Aleem Khan behind the scenes of After Love (2020)

Joanna Scanlan gives an extraordinary and fearless performance as Mary. How did you approach working with her?

I always compile dossiers during the writing process based on the social, psychological and physiological aspects of a character. Then I give them to the actors. So Joanna got a massive bundle with her backstory in it, and I included scraps of articles and books I’d read, photography, and a bunch of family home movies. She also met my mum during pre-prep, who taught her how to make saag paneer and roti. My mum gave her a whole bag of her clothes to try on and get used to as well. It was important for me that Joanna knew where this was all coming from. We were lucky to have time ahead of the shoot to visit Dover and for us to establish a history and connection to the landscape for the character.

There’s a pleasing visual and geographical symmetry to the framing of After Love’s two female leads – how did you design that balance?

Mary doesn’t have much agency when we first meet her, and maintaining a neat house is one of the ways she exercises control over her life. Genevieve, by contrast, is a slightly disorderly working single mother whose life is in flux as she prepares to move. I wanted these women to appear different superficially, but their emotional lives are both crumbling.

I didn’t like the obviousness of a story about two women at each other’s throats. Instead, I wanted to build slowly towards an understanding that they share a common bond in Genevieve’s son Solomon and the man they both loved – both women are a kind of distorted mirror of one another. We leave them in a conflicted final situation, but there’s an emerging recognition and clarity that they have a necessary place in each other’s lives.

Aleem Khan and Joanna Scanlan on the set of After Love (2020)
The White Cliffs of Dover represent an ‘idea’ of nationhood that is so multi-faceted that it cannot be fully defined.

After Love occupies a somewhat resistant place in the British Asian cinema ‘canon’ – where do you locate it?

I can understand why After Love would feature in the ‘British Asian’ category, but I hope at the same time that the film exposes the fragility of that label. It’s quite othering; I mean, what’s the difference between contemporary British and British Asian cinema anyway?

It’s a bit like the White Cliffs of Dover iconography I use in the film. They represent an ‘idea’ of nationhood that is so multi-faceted – and one that still continues to shift and evolve – that it cannot be fully defined. There was something about this image that perfectly encapsulated what I wanted to say about the erosion of stable or ‘fixed’ identities, because things are so much messier, and more beautiful for it, than we are invited to believe.

Further reading

After Love grieves for a house divided by the English Channel

By Pamela Hutchinson

After Love grieves for a house divided by the English Channel

Film of the week: Apostasy presents a family’s painful crisis of faith

By Nikki Baughan

Film of the week: Apostasy presents a family’s painful crisis of faith

Monsoon review: Hong Khaou’s Saigon drama charts undercurrents of migration and mourning

By Ben Nicholson

Monsoon review: Hong Khaou’s Saigon drama charts undercurrents of migration and mourning

“Foreigners in a foreign land, finding a sense of hope”: Hong Khaou on Monsoon

By Devika Girish

“Foreigners in a foreign land, finding a sense of hope”: Hong Khaou on Monsoon

Sight and Sound November 2021

50 years after its release, we reveal the untold stories behind A Clockwork Orange, as seen through the relationship between author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick + Edgar Wright on Last Night in Soho, Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall, Małgorzata Szumowska on Never Gonna Snow Again, Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, the best of Venice and much more…

Find out more and get a copy