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London Film Festival 2020: ‘After Love’ – Dance of secret past and present make for compelling family saga… (review)

London Film Festival 2020: ‘After Love’ – Dance of secret past and present make for compelling family saga… (review)

A British Muslim woman learns about herself and her husband’s other life following his demise…

CULTURALLY rich and socially charged, ‘After Love’ is a film about the invisible spaces our nearest and dearest inhabit.

Beautifully acted with a clear narrative, it pulls you in quickly and doesn’t let you go.

Aleem Khan’s debut film is a testament to his rich promise as a young writer-director.

The film was chosen for Cannes Critics Week* earlier this year and it would have created a good impression for the young filmmaker who has the credentials (on the basis of this film) to command global critical attention.

‘Mary Hussain’ (Joanna Scanlan) is the central character and principle focus of Khan’s intimate character and family study.

When we first encounter 60-something ‘Mary’, she is happily married to ‘Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) and has heartily embraced a Muslim and Pakistani way of life as a convert to her husband’s faith.

She wears a veil and Shalwar Kameez and speaks English and Urdu.

Her husband’s sudden death is a huge shock, but what follows is an even bigger one in some ways and the film explores what happens when people leave us and some revelation about them forces us to reassess our relationship to them.

Unbeknown to her, her husband has another family just across The Channel from their home in Kent.

Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) in ‘After Love

Just like Mary, we really have no idea what she will find across the sea and it turns out to be both challenging and surprising.

Another family, another culture, another language – what is really affecting and impressive is the way Khan has weaved these two family stories together.

He explores the spaces between the cultures, the cracks, the tensions, and the undoubted beauty.

It’s heartening to see (ordinary) lives like these get the big screen treatment – and the richness is both in the material and in its telling.

The second wife is rather different to Mary (Nathalie Richard) and has a truculent late teen son, ‘Solomon’ (Talid Ariss).

Mary is able to weave herself into their lives and doesn’t let on about her own situation. The secret belongs to Mary and us as the audience.

Ahmed’s other woman has no cause to get suspicious and her troubled relationship with her son offers lots to those looking for the same answers as Mary.

All this is delicately and impressively done – Khan lets his camera do much of the work and the dialogue has a lot of unsaid elements – which is just how it should be.

The impact of provincial life (in this case Calais) should not be underestimated too – there is both a background bleakness and perspective that gives some idea as to what may have gone wrong for these two women – loving the same man.

You may feel slightly cheated in that the central conceit is not rumbled earlier, but Scanlan plays Mary with such poise and skill, you should overlook this and accept too, she has more to gain than to lose by withholding her own secret.

There are times of biting, unwitting comedy when the French woman talks about Ahmed and his life across the Channel.

Some of Scanlan’s looks are priceless – natural and outraged – she has to remain unmoved to extract as much information as she wants or desires.

Khan shows what it’s like to live between many cultures – not just one or two.

There will be tensions and difficulties and navigating various pressures will require skill and diplomacy – Khan shows it is perhaps easy to be derailed and lose one’s bearings because few people want to understand or even empathise. Those looking for black and white solutions will find themselves only temporarily relieved.

In some ways, it is a grand statement about minority cultures (and not just the obvious ones here).

What is impressive is the way Khan handles all the issues thrown up in this film without really coming down heavily in favour of one or the other. It is not about East or West or Islam and other faiths (or none), but about all that and more…

The point being…well, you should watch it and then you’ll appreciate that Khan is a filmmaker to watch for the future.
(Sailesh Ram)

ACV rating: **** (four out of five).

After Love’ is a British Institute (BFI) Film and will get a cinema release in Spring 2021…

*The Cannes Film Festival was cancelled this year (2020) because of the global pandemic.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture