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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

The romance of Clio Barnard’s fourth feature Ali & Ava has a naturalism rarely captured in cinema. The genre’s standard is to frame lovers in a bubble, setting them apart from other characters. Here, the boisterous multicultural city of Bradford in West Yorkshire is woven into the terms of engagement. The two leads – drawn from real people Barnard met while making The Arbor (2010) and The Selfish Giant (2013) – are lived-in, with baggage and responsibilities constantly pulling them back to their families, communities and pasts.

Ali (Adeel Akhtar, buzzing with jocular energy) is a Bengal-British Muslim, a local DJ and property manager who treats his tenants like mates. He lives with his beautiful estranged wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) and fronts like they’re together to his family, while privately navigating complex sorrows.

Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is of Irish descent and has a small house that is always open to her abundant children and grandchildren. Joanna Hogg’s regular production designer Stéphane Collonge uses world-building to show her character. Two sofas are pushed together to form a boat “because the children like it”. Ava is someone for whom nurture is second nature. She works as a teaching assistant at the local school and through this role she meets Ali.

Ali & Ava (2021)

One rainy day, Ali gives his tenant’s young daughter a lift home from school and ends up driving Ava too. Their dialogue is exquisitely written, full of the push-and-pull of flirtation; that dance of beckoning someone in, then showing them a boundary. Their main subject is music. She likes country. He likes electro. He warmly takes the piss out of her and she gives as good as she gets.

The fact that their meeting is happening at the end of a work day, as the result of an expedient solution to a problem, gives it a precious quality. Theirs is not the contrived meet-cute of a Hollywood romance. It’s a freebie that simmered up out of nowhere and could simmer down just as easily. Barnard sets her romantic drama in territory so mired in the chaos of life that no signposting can exist.

Ava invites Ali inside for something very innocent: they listen to each other’s music by switching earphones, pressing play at exactly the same time, while sitting on the sofa boat. Music is used diegetically to elevate the emotional beats and add specific passions to our growing sense of who these people are. Ali’s tune of choice is Radio by Sylvan Esso – its big squishy beats aligning to his big squishy heart. Ava’s taste for the old-soul strains of folk and country cohere to her backstory with the recently deceased father of her children, a domestic abuser.

Ava’s son Callum (Shaun Thomas) lives with her, together with his girlfriend and their newborn baby girl. On arriving home to see Ali in the house he takes the extreme step of running to grab the sword that he inexplicably owns. This terrifying act is absorbed into the narrative in a worldly way. Ava and Ali both find ways to laugh at it (Ali dubs him ‘Zorro’), while it serves as a prompt for Ava to eventually lay to rest the illusions he carries about his father.

Ali & Ava (2021)

This is Barnard’s most accomplished film since her debut, The Arbor, dispensing with the bitter aftertaste left by her gratuitously punishing tale of trauma, Dark River (2017). Where that film hammered the note of suffering until it became one monotonous drone, Ali & Ava is a nuanced slice of life that is generous to all its characters, even as it recognises the magnitude of the challenges they face. Bradford is filmed with an insider’s eye for the details that make its diverse milieu pop with life. Barnard is careful to include the additional tension that arises from spotlighting an interracial couple without letting it overwhelm their story.

Cinematographer Ole Birkeland proves his versatility by composing his shots according to the mood of the moment. Often the texture and hustle of the characters’ lives is parsed into propulsive shooting as the camera moves restlessly onwards. Sometimes – such as when Ali and Ava steal a moment to themselves standing on a hill above the glowing city lights at night – the surroundings look breathtakingly serene.

Extreme close-ups enhance the intimacy of these character portraits. The more time they spend together, the more they learn what each other is going through and the less space there is to hide. Barnard presents a type of romance that involves not escape from one’s problems but acceptance of another’s.

Lightly threaded around the key events of the story is the question of what Callum’s newborn baby will be called. Various suggestions are shot down until all agree on Grace, a word that also applies to what Ali and Ava find together.

Further reading

Film of the week: Dark River drags a history of abuse into the present

By Pamela Hutchinson

Film of the week: Dark River drags a history of abuse into the present

Film of the week: The Selfish Giant

By Jonathan Romney

Film of the week: The Selfish Giant

Sight and Sound November 2021

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