Tag: Joanna Scanlan

After Love (2021)

After Love (2021)

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.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones excel in the thoughtful and well handled The Invisible Woman

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson), Perdita Weeks (Maria Ternan), John Kavanagh (Reverend Benham), Amanda Hale (Fanny Ternan)

In 1865 Charles Dickens was involved in a train accident. While he worked tirelessly, tending to those caught up in the accident, he was also extremely careful to hide the fact he was travelling with a young actress called Nelly Ternan. Ms Ternan was his lover, had been for several years, and the couple were returning from Paris. Dickens managed to avoid the inquest and preserve the secret of his affair. Because, while he was happy to publicly announce his separation from his wife, the idea of the public hearing that he had an affair with someone 27 years younger than him was unthinkable.

The affair is deduced from careful deduction and the small remaining correspondence (both parties destroyed large numbers of letters) by the biographer Claire Tomlin. Her book forms the basis of Fiennes’ thoughtful, careful and intelligent film, with the director playing Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan. The Invisible Woman is restrained and unjudgmental film-making, that largely avoids obvious moral calls and weaves a beautifully constructed tale of two people who make themselves both happy and miserable.

And that misery is partly due to the times they live in. It’s an era of Victorian morals, where all that matters is the surface appearance and any real emotions underneath can go hang. But it’s also a world where very different rules apply to men and women. Dickens can leave his wife (in a press announcement) – but of course a woman could never do the same. It’s a world of strictly defined rules, with clear roles for both genders that cannot be deviated from. And it forces Nelly Ternan to travel to Paris, because the public shame that would come with her pregnancy by Dickens would destroy her. It’s why, years after Dicken’s death, she is lying about how well she knew the man (even changing her name and age to further distance herself) so that she can conform with the expectations of being a school-master’s wife (and ensure she will not be thrown out to the streets).

The rules are so strong that both Dickens and Ternan are as much in thrall to them as anyone else. Dickens is willing to bend the rules – but only so far. He would clearly never dream of living openly with his unmarried partner and their child as his friend Wilkie Collins (a perfectly cast Tom Hollander) would do. And Nelly Ternan is as outraged at this liaison – and as desperately uncomfortable in their home – as any prim housewife would be. In fact, in many ways, Nelly is even more conservative than Dickens.

But then she has to be. After all, he would be a rogue, she would be a whore. Choices aren’t great for women – and in her chosen career of actress, Nelly is clearly far more enthusiastic than she is talented. It’s worries about the career that leads to her mother – an excellent performance of motherly love mixed with a quiet understanding of the world from Kristin Scott Thomas – all but encouraging Dickens to seduce her daughter. Because, for an independently minded woman passionate about the art, if you can’t be an actress your other option is to be a muse.

Even Dickens seems quietly ashamed at his seduction of this woman, while she half-persuades herself it isn’t happening until it is. So, what draws them together? Refreshingly this isn’t a question of an older man excited by a younger woman – or a naïve woman swept up by a powerful man. Instead, these are kindred spirits. Both of them are passionate, intelligent and questioning. They both express an emotional honesty and openness. They have shared passions for literature, theatre and stories. It’s a romance that slowly blossoms and is based on a shared feeling. It would have been easier to tell a story of seduction and abuse – but this is a more intelligent film than that. At that fatal train accident, its Dickens who yearns to stay with Nelly and its Nelly that urges him to leave to preserve his secrets.

As these two, we have two actors with beautiful chemistry. Felicity Jones is inspired as Nelly Ternan. She both idolises Dickens, but is also drawn towards him on a very human level. She is astute, but conservative and at times even remote. Her older self, over a decade later, is both prickly and defensive – and those are qualities you can trace in her younger self, and not just because of her fear of disgrace. It’s a beautifully judged performance, both older than her time and also with a vibrancy and energy that entrances.

Fiennes, a more reserved actor, seems like an odd choice for the bon vivant Dickens – but he brilliantly excels in the role, full of energy and room-filling dominance. He marvellously conveys the charm and passion of Dickens, but also his thoughtlessness. This is after all a man who drops his wife by newspaper announcement and builds a barrier between their bedrooms. Who loves Nelly, but not enough to make her anything but a secret. Who is passionate and excited about his work, but can be turn distant and cool in his personal life. It’s a fabulous performance.

And the two leads are centred in a low-key, poetic film. You get the sense that there is a danger in getting to close to genius. Dicken’s wife Catherine – a beautifully sad and lonely performance from Joanna Scanlan – even warns Nelly about it (while delivering a gift from her husband, sent to her by mistake). It’s a danger that shapes Nelly’s whole life – but also her life is enriched by having Dickens in it. It’s a film that avoids obvious moral judgments – and while there are things done which cause pain, everyone is living in an imperfect society. Fiennes direction and use of visual language is wonderful and this is an impressive film.

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench battle with obsession in Notes on a Scandal

Director: Richard Eyre

Cast: Judi Dench (Barbara Covett), Cate Blanchett (Sheba Hart), Bill Nighy (Richard Hart), Andrew Simpson (Steven Connolly), Phil Davis (Brian Bangs), Michael Maloney (Sandy Pabblem), Joanna Scanlan (Sue Hodge), Tom Georgeson (Ted Mawson), Shaun Parkes (Bill Rumer), Emma Williams (Linda), Julia McKenzie (Marjorie), Juno Temple (Polly Hart)

Zoe Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal makes superb use of an increasingly unreliable narrator to reveal the complications in the affair between a female art teacher and a young male student. It’s a device that doesn’t always carry across as well to film, but Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber have still crafted a fine story about obsession and envy in all its different ways.

In an inner-city school, bohemian art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is a new arrival, struggling to learn how to control her students. It’s a skill long-since mastered by jaded and bitter history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who soon finds herself fascinated by the attractive and engaging Sheba. This relationship is complicated when she discovers that Sheba has begun a sexual relationship with one of her 15-year old students, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), a student with a difficult record who has shown a surprising interest in art. As Barbara positions herself as Sheba’s only trusted confidant, the danger of discovery begins to become ever more likely as Sheba’s behaviour becomes more and more reckless.

The real strength of Eyre’s film are the two lead performances from Dench and Blanchett, a match-up surely made in casting heaven. Dench is superb in one of her best film roles, turning Barbara Covett into exactly the sort of shrivelled up, bitter spinster you are not surprised to learn has led a life of loneliness. Dench laces the performance with a sharp nastiness, masked behind a chilly professionalism, but she also makes clear the aching loneliness, the desperation and the ability to deceive herself that Barbara has, the longing to be loved but also the possessive obsession that drives love away.

She’s equally well-matched by Blanchett, at her most glamourous and natural as Sheba. One of the film’s strengths is the way it avoids giving spurious psychological reasons for Sheba’s obsession for this basically fairly unpleasant young lout. Blanchett identifies this sense of being trapped in Sheba, this desire to rebel and taste a little bit of freedom (in every home scene she is shown undertaking most if not all the housework and childcaring duties), feelings that mutate into a sexual obsession with Connolly. Blanchett is desperate, self-deceiving and hugely tragic, unable to fully express the reasons for her feelings herself, but unable to let go of her addiction to a new wildness and danger in her life that you feel she has never really felt before.

These two performances power a film that explores obsession and envy, with Barbara obsessed (to a scarily possessive and manipulative degree) with Sheba, exploiting Sheba’s own reckless and sexual obsession with Connolly. These feelings are shown to be often beyond the understanding of other characters, and both women ret-con events and reactions from the target of their obsessions to build elaborate fantasy worlds. It’s the danger of obsession here, the way we shape the facts to meet our desired preconceptions. It doesn’t matter what reality, or what anyone else, says – you want to believe what you want to believe.

And it’s these obsessions that lead people both to take unbelievable risks and also to feel a crushing sense of envy and possession. Both Barbara and Sheba can barely tolerate the idea of their loves focusing attention elsewhere, and despite seeming to have so much control in their relationships are helpless victims. Sheba is reduced to begging tears when it feels like her relationship with Connolly is burning out. After all is revealed, Barbara’s efforts to take control of Sheba’s life are revealed to be powered by an almost desperately sad need to believe that Sheba and she are starting a new life together. So deep is Barbara’s denial about her own lesbianism (and so extreme her unhappiness about herself), it’s a romantic vision she is so deep in denial feels unable to even begin to put any sexual dimension onto.

Envy and human frailty run through the whole film. Most of the teaching staff, especially Phil Davis’ sad-sack maths teacher in love with Sheba, carry their own small obsessions and envies. Sheba’s husband himself left his first wife for Sheba when she was one of his students. The students have more than enough rivalries to deal with. 

It’s a deadly circle, with contact breeding obsession, breeding envy. To get such an effect, Marber’s adaptation needs to streamline the book. The biggest loss as a result is the book’s slow, creeping, realisation that Barbara is a deeply arrogant, bitter, unlikeable person who views most of the people around her with contempt. Here Dench’s waspish voiceover immediately makes it clear to the viewer that she is not that nice a person. It’s a shame, as it rather signposts for the viewer where the film may be heading. 

The storyline also races through the book (the film is less than 90 minutes) which means it often feels more like a melodrama. While I think it’s a strength that the film doesn’t try and give a real reason for Sheba’s decision to seduce (or be seduced) by her student, other than to hint at her own sense of bohemian freedom being lost at home, I can see how others will find the reasons for why the radiant Sheba is so drawn to such a surly kid rather hard to accept.

But it still works, because the film is so well-played. With Dench and Blanchett at their best (and excellent support from Bill Nighy, quietly superb as Sheba’s husband, a decent guy who can’t believe his luck that he is married to such a wonderful woman, and whose world falls apart in bitter recrimination), it’s a film that gives more than enough rewards. The film gives us a decent ending from the book, with more hope for Sheba – but the balance suggests that for Barbara the cycle of obsession will only continue. Heaven help anyone who sits down on a park bench next to her.