Loss, grief and family combine in Aleem Khan’s poetic, heartfelt debut
Director: Aleem Khan
Cast: Joanna Scanlan (Mary Hussain), Nathalie Richard (Genevieve), Talid Ariss (Solomon), Nasser Memarzia (Ahmed), Sudha Bhuchar (Farzanna), Nisha Chadha (Mina)
Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) is a white English woman who converted to Islam decades ago to marry Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). Ahmed works as a captain of a ferry ship, travelling between their home in Dover and Calais. When he suddenly passes away, Mary is distraught. But that’s nothing compared to how she feels when she discovers Ahmed had a second family in Calais: Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and their son Solomon (Talid Ariss) – whose very existence is a painful memory of the child Mary and Ahmed lost decades ago. Mary travels to Calais to do she’s-not-sure-what but, due to a misunderstanding, ends up working as a cleaner in Genevieve’s house as she packs for a move, totally unaware Ahmed is not just ignoring her calls.
The debut film from Aleem Khan – whose mother was similarly a white English convert, living in Kent, who immersed herself in her adopted culture – After Love is part fascinating moral dilemma, part profound exploration of the burden of grief. Mary’s life has been shattered by the loss, not only of her husband, but the even greater loss of her understanding of what her life was. Khan captures this with a beautifully shot visual metaphor: Mary hallucinates the world literally collapsing around her, from dust dancing in the sunlight, to cracks appearing in the ceiling above her to a vivid hallucination of the white cliffs of Dover collapsing behind her as she sails to Calais.
Khan’s film is at its strongest when it centres Mary’s emotions and faith. It’s a wonderful endorsement of the power of faith. Faith is central to Mary’s life: she immersed herself in her adopted culture – from prayer to dress to food, which she cooks with love-infused skill. Part of the film’s purpose is to challenge any underlying assumptions we may have about this culture. Mary’s faith is not something forced upon her or which provides barriers to her. It has, instead, given her peace, purpose and contentment. In a world where images of Islam are not always so positive, it’s refreshing to see religion as such a positive force in a person’s life.
But the film also knows seeing a woman in a hijab carries certain assumptions. Its perhaps the biggest reason why, when Mary arrives at her door, Genevieve assumes she is a cleaner. Later she will question why Mary wears it, as if it was a set of chains rather than a personal choice that is an expression of her faith. For Genevieve, the hijab not only makes it easier to push her into a servile position, it also defines her, in the eyes some, as being on the lower rungs of society (which she isn’t). You can be confident if Mary had turned up wearing a black dress and a hat, the film would have played out very differently.
We see Mary carefully prep what she might say to this other woman, before she arrives. It all goes out of the window in tongue-tied fear and shock when she arrives. Instead, she ends up working as a cleaner. Mary accepts the misunderstanding for reasons she almost can’t understand herself. Is it meekness? Awkwardness? Curiosity? Shock that this woman is far more glamourous than she is? Does she want revenge? She hardly knows herself, using her position in the house, effectively as a servant, to learn more about this woman and the family she built with her husband.
If there is a weakness in After Love it’s the slightly contrived nature of this plot. In a film grounded in the realism of the pain of loss – Mary’s devastation, confusion and sense of being adrift is explored with a profound sensitivity – it revolves around the sort of plot device that wouldn’t seem out of place in a soap opera. It takes a bit of investment – which the film just about manages to earn – to go with this storyline, which relies slightly on contrivance to sustain itself.
But it does allow us to have our perceptions about Genevieve challenged as well. While we assume, at first, she will be little better than a hussy, we discover she is a sensitive, realistic woman, well aware that she is (and more than a little guilty about being) “the other woman”. She is struggling with her teenage son Solomon, who can’t understand why his life is so unusual and of course blames his mother more than his absent (and therefore idealised) father.
In fact, the longer Mary stays in this house, not telling the truth, becoming a confidant to mother and son, the more you start to feel your loyalty shift. From our first perception of Mary being the wronged woman, the more you start to feel she is taking terrible advantage of Genevieve and her son. That not telling them Ahmed is dead, as they long to hear from him, is wrong. That her attempt to comfort Solomon (whom she starts to feel a motherly love for) by texting him from Ahmed’s phone is inadvertently deeply cruel. You start to feel unease about this interloper, lying to this family at what is already a difficult time.
The fact you stick with her is due to the extraordinary performance by Joanna Scanlon. Quiet, polite, over-flowing with faith and a desire to help, Scanlon also lets us see that the loss of Ahmed (and the loss of her memories of a happy marriage) has torn her apart. Scanlon’s performance drips with grief and pain, an anguish she can barely form into words. It’s a gentle powerhouse of humanity (and rightly BAFTA winning). Richard and Ariss also give fabulously raw performances as two people only just holding their own relationship together, never mind processing the loss of a husband and father.
After Love is strongest when exploring the profound and lasting effect of grief. Khan’s film is shot with a poetic beauty, and he draws deep and moving performances from his lead actors. It revolves around a massive contrivance but carries enough impact that you’ll feel the same note of hope, of the debris settled and life going on, as the film ends on.