Writer and Director: Aleem Khan
The White Cliffs of Dover have been a symbol of many things, of home and hope particularly, but they are also an image of fragility, a surface of dissolvable chalk which Mary sees crumbling into the sea. This is effectively what happens to her marriage in Aleem Khan’s new film, After Love, as a widow mutedly confronts betrayal and the memory of a man she never really knew.
When Mary’s husband dies suddenly she is overwhelmed by the formal rituals of grief. But going through her husband’s possessions she finds links to a mysterious woman called Geneviève and so begins a journey of discovery as Mary sets out to discover the secret her husband was hiding, one that takes her to Calais and into the life of another family.
If you can get over the original premise that, mistaken for a cleaner, Mary would not only accept the misunderstanding but would also perpetuate the myth by returning again and again under the same guise, then there is much to appreciate in Khan’s film. It’s sensitively handled, although it is never clear what Mary has to gain by keeping Geneviève and her son Solomon in suspense for so long.
But there is a kindness at the heart of the character that is felt throughout the film, in spite of the difficulties that confront her. Khan has created a woman used to being silent and at various points in the film we see her failing to speak up when she has the chance, unable to vocalise how she really feels and find the words to convey her emotional state.
Khan also explores the rituals of life and death; Mary is situated in the decisions she made to convert to Islam at her marriage and the religious and cultural community it has given her – a world that starts to feel hollow as her husband’s secret recasts their time together – and as a childless woman she is drawn into Geneviève and Solomon’s alternative family life.
Joanna Scanlan rarely gets a leading role as textured as this and grounds the film with an impressive performance that uses the shock and resulting grief from Ahmed’s sudden death to explore Mary’s often conflicting responses. The growing affection and understanding for her rivals is well played, if surprisingly accepting, while Scanlan shows Mary’s confidence growing as she finally confronts and accepts the truth.
Nathalie Richard is initially a lighter presence as Geneviève, a woman far more comfortable with her life, not quite carefree but at ease with her choices but this darkens as Mary’s real identity comes into view. Talid Ariss adds a sensitive performance as teenage son Solomon dealing with the usual angst but drawn to what he sees as Mary’s uncomplicated goodness.
After Love is a rather conventional set-up and in never really exploring Mary’s conversion in any depth, her life within the community or how the early revelation affects (or not) her perspective on that choice means the narrative perhaps offers few surprises. Yet thanks to a Scanlan’s expansive central performance Khan’s film is full of unspoken layers that ultimately offer plenty of hope.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October