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Should I Watch..? 'After Love' (2020)

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Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

After Love is an independently produced drama film released in 2020 and marks the feature-film debut for its writer and director, Aleem Khan. The film stars Joanna Scanlan as a white Muslim convert who discovers hints of a secret double life belonging to her late husband and undertakes a journey to find out more. The film also stars Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss (making his English language debut) and Nasser Memarzia. With its UK cinema release delayed by the pandemic, the film achieved almost universal acclaim from critics and secured a number of awards at the British Independent Film Awards (or BIFAs) before Scanlan won Best Actress at the 2022 BAFTAs, beating the much fancied Lady Gaga for her performance in House Of Gucci. Partly co-funded by the BBC, it should be shown on terrestrial television in the not-too-distant future after previously being available via the British Film Institute's streaming service.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

British Muslim convert Mary Hussain and her Pakistani husband Ahmed return to their home in Dover one night, only for Ahmed to unexpectedly pass away. Going through his things after the funeral, Mary is shocked to find a photo of a French woman called Genevieve who she has never seen before. She also discovers a number of text conversations between Genevieve and Ahmed, suggesting a romantic meeting. Fearing the worse, Mary boards a ferry across the English Channel to Calais in France and tracks Genevieve down.

Genevieve and her teenage son Solomon are preparing to move out of their home and move to a newer property nearby. Mistaking Mary for a cleaner, Genevieve invites Mary inside where she soon discovers that her worst fears are true. Rather than confronting Genevieve with the truth as she is unaware that Ahmed has died, Mary maintains the deception of being a cleaning lady in order to learn as much as possible and soon begins questioning her marriage, her faith and herself.

Trailer

What's to like?

The film hangs on the incredible performance by Scanlan, a veteran star of TV and supporting roles in films who makes the most of a rare dramatic lead. She is utterly heartbreaking as the woman in mourning undergoing the most horrific emotional turmoil imaginable, something I can sadly identify with. As someone who has lost their soulmate, I recognised myself listening to voicemails to hear her voice again or clinging to everyday possessions because they were hers. Scanlan delivers much of her performance with little or no dialogue, illustrating the questions she has going around her head that will never be answered - was I not good enough for them? What could I have done differently? What did they really feel about me? She brings a great dignity to the role and watching the film, I completely understand why she won over some many critics and award committees.

As well as the leading lady delivering a knock-out performance, the film is a powerful exploration of a number of themes including culture, love, truth and grief. The supporting cast - Richard as the blissfully ignorant scarlet woman and Ariss as the rebellious son - are also fantastic in their roles although they take longer to win you over. But the film opens up, drip-feeding the viewer enough revelations to keep your attention hooked and setting up an inevitably tragic conclusion. There are also elements of fantasy hinting at Mary's emotional state and Khan's subtle direction keeps things flowing nicely with some dramatic landscapes and a bright, breezy feel. As a debut, it's impressive stuff and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Aleem Khan's feature film debut is a powerful and thought-provoking drama - promising stuff indeed!

Aleem Khan's feature film debut is a powerful and thought-provoking drama - promising stuff indeed!

Fun Facts

  • Khan admits that the film is partly inspired by his experience growing up in a mixed-heritage family - he is the son of an English woman and a Pakistani man. In fact, he cast Scanlan in large part due to her resemblance to his mother. "The character was based on my mum," he said. "I was struck by the similar physicality Joanna has - the piercing blue eyes, the same open face."
  • By contrast, Scanlan grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family. "I... grew up in the 1960s when things like Latin Mass and the rosary were a part of life," she recalled. "So I dug into my own childhood memories of the daily practise of faith." Scanlan speaks both Arabic and Urdu in the film and spent some time with Khan's family to help her prepare for the role.
  • The scene where a baby's head is shaved is a depiction of a rite of aqeeqah, a important Islamic ceremony where the weight of the baby's hair is donated to charity. It forms part of a naming ritual for the child and should be performed seven days after their arrival into the world.
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What's not to like?

Sadly, the film isn't quite the smash that Scanlan's performance deserves. Firstly, there is a soap-opera feel to the central contrivance at the heart of the picture which doesn't quite ring true enough for me. I found myself questioning the decisions made by Mary at times - I understand that in that situation one might not be thinking straight but how did she honestly expect things to pan out, if she was thinking at all? While I liked the subtle hints about Mary's past, I wanted more of an exploration of her faith as it's not really discussed much in the film. For an unusual protagonist, I wanted to know more about her story and her own struggles rather than this single episode in her life. I will admit that I liked the fact that she didn't question her faith (and how nice is it to see a positive depiction of an Islamic character for once?) but the film makes it feel as though she is far too distant from everyone, whether it's due to language, faith or culture.

While the film has no shortage of emotional sucker-punches lined up, it isn't afraid to keep piling the pressure on. A subplot involving Solomon's sexuality is hinted at but never really resolved and I still had questions at the end of the film, though I enjoyed the journey up to that point. My only other issue with the film was more practical than anything else - After Love is not an easy film to watch simply because it isn't available on a wide release, which is a shame. Given Scanlan's recent BAFTA success, I hope that this can be rectified in the future either by a theatrical re-release or by fast-tracking the film on to home release. At the time of writing, the film is only available via the BFI Player streaming service which limits its potential audience somewhat.

The famous white cliffs of Dover are an important setting for the film and even feature in a dream-like fantasy sequence.

The famous white cliffs of Dover are an important setting for the film and even feature in a dream-like fantasy sequence.

Should I watch it?

After Love could have been a fairly dull, kitchen-sink kinda drama that doesn't appeal to me all that much but with Scanlan's incredible performance, it becomes a genuinely touching and emotional film. I sincerely hope that the film propels both her and Khan on to bigger and better things because they both deserve it on the back of this. If you can watch it, I recommend doing so - it might not be everyone's cup of tea but the film is an eye-opening experience in a number of ways and I can't fault a film that manages to actually engage with its audience the way this film does.

Great For: cultural depictions of Islam and Muslim characters, Joanna Scanlan & Aleem Khan, anyone looking for a provocative or emotional drama

Not So Great For: the extreme right-wing, action junkies, pyromaniacs

What else should I watch?

After Love is a terrific example of British independent cinema which has seemingly grown in strength and influence over a number of years thanks to groups like the BBC and Film4 making funding available. Supporting filmmakers such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle, films such as Trainspotting, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Billy Elliot and Yesterday have become instant classics. Usually found among nominations for various awards, recent films like period biography Ammonite and psychological horror Saint Maud are among those well worth checking out.

Positive depictions of Muslims can be hard to come by in film, given how such characters are either used as stock villains for some action piece or underdeveloped compared to others. However, a good place to start is with 1976's The Message which chronicles the life and times of the prophet Muhammad but without portraying him directly, in accordance with Islamic custom. Spike Lee's biopic Malcolm X took the time to show how important his faith was to the civil rights campaigner while Victoria And Abdul portrays the real-life relationship between the widowed Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, her Muslim servant who served her for the last fourteen years of her reign. Finally, Islamic extremism is the real target for satirical comedy Four Lions which is about a number of radicalised Brits intending to act as suicide bombers but with comically disastrous results. Directed and co-written by satirist Chris Morris, the film was produced in conjunction with a number of British Muslims over a number of years and straddles the line between brazen comedy and the human tragedy of mindless fanaticism.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Joanna Scanlan

Mary Hussain

Nathalie Richard

Genevieve

Talid Ariss

Solomon

Nasser Memarzia

Ahmed Hussain

Technical Info

DirectorAleem Khan

Screenplay

Aleem Khan

Running Time

89 minutes

Release Date (UK)

4th June, 2021

Rating

12A

Genre

Drama

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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