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Monday, December 11, 2023

After Love Review: Distraught Double-Life Makes Compelling Drama

After Love, the debut feature by writer and director Aleem Khan released in UK & Irish cinemas, including BFI Southbank on 4th June. The film was awarded the Cannes 2020 Critics’ Week label, followed by selection for Telluride 2020, TIFF Industry Selects and Rome Film Festival Official Selection.

It had its UK premiere screening to much acclaim at the 2020 BFI London Film Festival and Aleem was shortlisted for the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in association with the BFI, presented during the festival.

The extraordinarily moving drama features a compelling lead performance by BAFTA-nominated actor Joanna Scanlan alongside French actor Nathalie Richard and newcomer Talid Ariss in his first major English language role.

After Love tells the story of Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) who converted to Islam (Muslim name is Fahima) when she married and now is in her early 60s, living quietly in Dover with her husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia).

Following his unexpected demise, she discovers that Ahmed had a secret life just twenty-one miles away, across the Channel in Calais. The shocking discovery compels her to go there to find out more, and as she grapples with her shattered sense of identity, her search for understanding has surprising consequences.

Aleem marks every criterion in filmmaking. In the beginning, we see a dutiful wife is storing food from a family function, while the husband listens to classic Hindi film songs, engaging in small talk. Soon enough, the crux of the film happens… Within an instance.

During the introductory scene, the wide-shot and minimal camera movement exude a visceral feel, where the visuals are a silent witness to the life of ‘Fahima’ Hussain. It sets the premise immediately, grabbing our attention and maintains this throughout the film.

Even miscellaneous scenes where Mary blow-dries a steamed mirror to clear her reflection are so powerful in highlighting her predicament of finding out what the truth is. Many filmmakers usually indulge in a lengthy back story to determine the context. But here, the backdrop is exhibited by swiftly edited visuals and information embedded within dialogues. Hence, it ensures the viewer stays hooked to the film and not let their attention wander elsewhere.

These aspects make the movie so compelling as the minimalistic approach plunges viewers into the oblivious life of Mary. The intensity is immense, almost pantomime-like, but yet understandable. We understand why mary makes the decisions she does, even though practicality does not permit them.

Even during confrontation scenes or sequences where characters reveal some truths about themselves, the tension is gripping. At the same time, there is a sense of poignancy and fragility to the way Khan handles these moments. It is tender, captivating and bold.

After Love in many ways does seem to be a love letter to Dover and Calais. But the way he makes the coastal locations of Dover reflective of Mary’s circumstances is remarkable. Even though the areas she is in are picturesque and represent tranquillity, her emotions are high-octane as her world comes crashing down.

Furthermore, seeing visuals of White Dover Cliff chunks breaking down, re-emphasises how her world has also crashed down. A scene I would like to specifically mention here is where a shocked Mary lays in the sea and she gets crashed by the waves from every direction. Such moments artistically highlight the character’s state of mind and view on life.

Interestingly, Pagglait on Netflix also showed how a young widow discovers a hidden truth about her husband. Now, After Love quite aptly addresses the patriarchal double standards within the South-Asian society. These films show convey the misogynistic regressive view of how men compartmentalise women into certain types… The dutiful wife and hidden secret. It is heartbreaking and enrages the viewer, but highly thought-provoking. Aleem Khan silently explores this problematic approach.

In fact, there are several layers to the film and one of the key themes (aside from ‘lost love’) is identity. Whether it’s Mary, who renounced roots for her husband’s love or the mistress Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) not knowing her relationship status – the sense of identity becomes a major blur for all the characters. The cultural differences and yet binding together in grief is a major part of the identity theme.

What also drives this compelling drama to extraordinary heights are the powerful performances. Kudos to casting director Shaheen Baig and Lucciana de Vogüe for their magnificent eye for talent. Joanna Scanlan is outstanding. Her eyes convey sorrow and grief, but yet there is a sense of formidability. There is sincerity in her enactment which makes the role seem so raw and real. Also, her command of Urdu (in the film) is quite apt.

Nathalie Richard is an established actor in French cinema and she does a tremendous job with playing ‘the other woman’. There is authenticity in her performance which effortlessly reflects the dilemma and predicament she faces. Though the tone of her voice is often light-hearted/hopeful, the deep sound of it conveys the pain she endures. Powerful!

Talid Ariss who plays a very pivotal role in the film is incredible too. As a youngster who is conflicted within himself and familial roles, it is quite a heartbreaking performance but delivered with such clarity and confidence. His camaraderie with both Joanna and Nathalie is riveting.

Films like After Love is a reminder of how a simple story can be told so compellingly, enriched with high visual appeal. For a feature film debut by Aleem Khan, it is a courageous endeavour. Usually, with pieces of cinema, it can be quite simple to identify flaws for critique. But this, for me, is perfection. This one needs to be celebrated.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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