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► After Love is in cinemas.
Aleem Khan’s debut feature After Love scrutinises bereavement as a mental health disorder, diving into not just the sorrow but the derangement of grief. As newly widowed Mary, Joanna Scanlan offers a portrait of a woman whose cracked heart wins our sympathy, as she absentmindedly makes tea for two in a hotel room or bursts into tears on her prayer mat, and whose increasingly stealthy behaviour commands our attention as she infiltrates another’s woman’s life. She’s compellingly broken. In Scanlan’s features we see grief and humiliation twisted into possessiveness, vengefulness and misplaced compassion, as she plays simultaneously the wronged wife and a cuckoo in somebody else’s nest.
Mary and her ferry-captain husband Ahmed are leading the peaceful life of a middle-aged Muslim couple in Dover, supported by a shared faith and a community, when he dies suddenly. Emptying his wallet after the funeral, Mary finds an ID card belonging to a French woman, Genevieve, and then loving messages on his phone from ‘G’. It’s a soap opera set-up, but in the hands of writer-director Khan, After Love becomes something weightier.
Not just bereaved but betrayed, Mary senses that her world is crumbling – Khan literalises this with discreet special effects: the white cliffs of Dover seem to crash into the English Channel, a ceiling cracks open. These are visions, but in the next scene Mary brushes dust from her shoulder.
Those cliffs, which feature prominently in the film as the spot where Mary would watch for Ahmed’s return and now waits for something else, take a place in a lineage of stories about mourning women waiting for their men to return from the sea. Much here feels as robust and longstanding as those cliffs. Even scenes played out via SMS have their heft – in this film, technology is fragile but useful, inasmuch as it carries and revives precious memories, from the audio tapes Ahmed posted from Pakistan, to home movies on VHS and the voicemail Mary listens to obsessively.
In the end, it’s a phone that will betray her deceit, but a granite headstone in the soil that reveals her real secret. Mary and Ahmed’s marriage was decades long, and his affair with Genevieve was no fling. Mary and Ahmed began their relationship as teenagers, in secrecy, in the face of cultural prejudice, and that story is about to play out again in the next generation. There is history here, and loss (a dead child, an absent father, an estranged family), as well as a gaping cultural divide.
Mary dresses modestly and wears a headscarf – she converted to Islam to be with Ahmed. She also speaks Urdu and cooks Pakistani food. Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) does none of those things. She is also a modern single working mother, and wears trousers and ruffled, highlighted hair. When we first see her it’s a shock, but she’s the one who judges by appearances. Mary is poised on her doorstep to confront her over the affair, but Genevieve flexes her own prejudice and takes her for a house cleaner.
When Mary accepts the offer to enter Genevieve’s home under these false pretences, the film grows an outer skin of intrigue. Later, when Genevieve, unaware of her cleaner’s real identity, gestures at her scarf and asks about her faith, Mary’s response is poisonous: “I did something for my husband that no one else could.” Unknowingly, the women have fallen into complementary roles – complementarily subservient to Ahmed’s needs, that is. There’s a shadow of Mary’s logic in Genevieve’s later statement: “Being with me has made him into a better husband for someone else.”
Richard and Talid Ariss, who plays Genevieve’s son Solomon, lend Scanlan impeccable support in roles that call for more thundering histrionics. However, this is Scanlan’s film, and her performance is disarmingly sophisticated. Although she is perhaps known mostly for television comedy, her best roles involve a virtuoso mix of tones, from her exasperated civil servant in Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick of It (2005-12) to her put-upon ward sister in BBC4’s geriatric ward-set Getting On (2009-12).
In this film, as in, say, Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion (2017), Scanlan again fully inhabits a complex role. It takes an actress of a high calibre to express so much, and there’s a tangible pleasure to be taken in observing her performance. Much of her best acting is done alone, halting in the middle of her prayers, reconstructing her identity as she rehearses a speech in the mirror, breathing in her husband’s scent on another woman’s laundry or laying down in the shallows on Calais beach and allowing the tides to mingle with her tears.
Khan’s filmmaking is as fastidious and as deceptively restrained as his heroine. Ahmed dies in the background of a long shot, and the slow zoom in towards his body is mirrored by a subsequent shot of the funeral gathering. The film is balanced in time and place too, bookended by two baptisms and taking place in towns that echo each other in location and industry. The physical gulf that separates the women is a body of water that has two names in two languages, much like Mary, whose Muslim name is Fahima, and Ahmed, whom she calls Ed.
Khan and DP Alexander Dynan (who worked on Paul Schrader’s similarly austere and grief-stricken First Reformed, 2017) frequently return to the cliff edge, the chilly waters, to stress this divide. There’s a sense of liminality, with both woman existing on the verge of something whole – sharing scraps of a home, a husband and a father.
Chris Roe’s score appears intermittently throughout the film but when it vanishes, perhaps Khan intends us to feel its absence, a reflection of the emptiness created by secrets and affections withheld, confessions left unmade. The music swells to suggest a harmonious future at the film’s end, but is swiftly replaced by the sound of waves crashing and gulls squawking as the credits roll. Ahmed and his mysterious motivations are lost in the deep, while above ground two women look for a new kind of home.
Prickly business: Deborah Haywood on Pin Cushion
The director's debut feature film is a dark fairytale that deals with bullying and social isolation, as experienced by teenage girls, and their mothers, she tells Anna Bogutskaya.
By Anna Bogutskaya
Sight and Sound November 2021
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