Aleem Khan’s debut feature After Love scrutinises bereavement as a mental health disorder, diving into not just the sorrow but the derangement of grief. As newly widowed Mary, Joanna Scanlan offers a portrait of a woman whose cracked heart wins our sympathy, as she absentmindedly makes tea for two in a hotel room or bursts into tears on her prayer mat, and whose increasingly stealthy behaviour commands our attention as she infiltrates another’s woman’s life. She’s compellingly broken. In Scanlan’s features we see grief and humiliation twisted into possessiveness, vengefulness and misplaced compassion, as she plays simultaneously the wronged wife and a cuckoo in somebody else’s nest.
Mary and her ferry-captain husband Ahmed are leading the peaceful life of a middle-aged Muslim couple in Dover, supported by a shared faith and a community, when he dies suddenly. Emptying his wallet after the funeral, Mary finds an ID card belonging to a French woman, Genevieve, and then loving messages on his phone from ‘G’. It’s a soap opera set-up, but in the hands of writer-director Khan, After Love becomes something weightier.
Not just bereaved but betrayed, Mary senses that her world is crumbling – Khan literalises this with discreet special effects: the white cliffs of Dover seem to crash into the English Channel, a ceiling cracks open. These are visions, but in the next scene Mary brushes dust from her shoulder.
Those cliffs, which feature prominently in the film as the spot where Mary would watch for Ahmed’s return and now waits for something else, take a place in a lineage of stories about mourning women waiting for their men to return from the sea. Much here feels as robust and longstanding as those cliffs. Even scenes played out via SMS have their heft – in this film, technology is fragile but useful, inasmuch as it carries and revives precious memories, from the audio tapes Ahmed posted from Pakistan, to home movies on VHS and the voicemail Mary listens to obsessively. In the end, it’s a phone that will betray her deceit, but a granite headstone in the soil that reveals her real secret. Mary and Ahmed’s marriage was decades long, and his affair with Genevieve was no fling. Mary and Ahmed began their relationship as teenagers, in secrecy, in the face of cultural prejudice, and that story is about to play out again in the next generation. There is history here, and loss (a dead child, an absent father, an estranged family), as well as a gaping cultural divide.
Mary dresses modestly and wears a headscarf – she converted to Islam to be with Ahmed. She also speaks Urdu and cooks Pakistani food. Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) does none of those things. She is also a modern single working mother, and wears trousers and ruffled, highlighted hair. When we first see her it’s a shock, but she’s the one who judges by appearances. Mary is poised on her doorstep to confront her over the affair, but Genevieve flexes her own prejudice and takes her for a house cleaner. When Mary accepts the offer to enter Genevieve’s home under these false pretences, the film grows an outer skin of intrigue. Later, when Genevieve, unaware of her cleaner’s real identity, gestures at her scarf and asks about her faith, Mary’s response is poisonous: ‘I did something for my husband that no one else could.’ Unknowingly, the women have fallen into complementary roles – complementarily subservient to Ahmed’s needs, that is. There’s a shadow of Mary’s logic in Genevieve’s later statement: ‘Being with me has made him into a better husband for someone else.’
Richard and Talid Ariss, who plays Genevieve’s son Solomon, lend Scanlan impeccable support in roles that call for more thundering histrionics. However, this is Scanlan’s film, and her performance is disarmingly sophisticated. Although she is perhaps known mostly for television comedy, her best roles involve a virtuoso mix of tones, from her exasperated civil servant in Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick of It (2005-12) to her put-upon ward sister in BBC4’s geriatric ward-set Getting On (2009-12). In this film, as in, say, Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion (2017), Scanlan again fully inhabits a complex role. It takes an actress of a high calibre to express so much, and there’s a tangible pleasure to be taken in observing her performance. Much of her best acting is done alone, halting in the middle of her prayers, reconstructing her identity as she rehearses a speech in the mirror, breathing in her husband’s scent on another woman’s laundry or laying down in the shallows on Calais beach and allowing the tides to mingle with her tears.
Khan’s filmmaking is as fastidious and as deceptively restrained as his heroine. Ahmed dies in the background of a long shot, and the slow zoom in towards his body is mirrored by a subsequent shot of the funeral gathering. The film is balanced in time and place too, bookended by two baptisms and taking place in towns that echo each other in location and industry. The physical gulf that separates the women is a body of water that has two names in two languages, much like Mary, whose Muslim name is Fahima, and Ahmed, whom she calls Ed. Khan and DP Alexander Dynan (who worked on Paul Schrader’s similarly austere and grief-stricken First Reformed, 2017) frequently return to the cliff edge, the chilly waters, to stress this divide. There’s a sense of liminality, with both women existing on the verge of something whole – sharing scraps of a home, a husband and a father. Chris Roe’s score appears intermittently throughout the film but when it vanishes, perhaps Khan intends us to feel its absence, a reflection of the emptiness created by secrets and affections withheld, confessions left unmade. The music swells to suggest a harmonious future at the film’s end, but is swiftly replaced by the sound of waves crashing and gulls squawking as the credits roll. Ahmed and his mysterious motivations are lost in the deep, while above ground two women look for a new kind of home.
Pamela Hutchinson, Sight & Sound, June 2021
Director Aleem Khan on ‘After Love’
Building on a run of British debuts that channel deeply personal stories (Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy, 2018; Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, 2019), Aleem Khan’s After Love is a quietly devastating exploration of loss that troubles mainstream representations of contemporary English identity.
After Love is quietly political in its way – how did the evolving political situation in the UK shape its five-year development period?
The film is deeply political for me, but I like that you’ve absorbed the politics quietly.
Over the five years it took to write the film, the refugee crisis in Calais presented itself on our doorstep, and then Brexit happened. Although the film isn’t exploring these events explicitly, they absolutely changed the way I thought about identity, nationhood, class and religion. Right now we have a prime minister who refers to Muslim women as letterboxes and, on the other side of the Channel, France has a president who ushered in a bill that effectively strips Muslim women of their religious autonomy. I have always wanted to see a person as beautifully complex as my mother on screen, and so I wrote a story about a white Muslim convert; an older, larger-framed Muslim woman who is the centre of her own story.
The premise is so engaging – how much of it was based on your personal history?
A lot of the details at plot level are not autobiographical, but the emotional guts of the film are much closer to home. My parents lost a daughter, my sister, when she was only six months old. I don’t remember anything about her, but the fallout from her death inevitably saturated me and my siblings. In many ways the project has been a way for me to work through a feeling of loss that I’ve always carried about me but never fully understood. The locations were very close to home, too; I grew up in Kent and my grandparents lived in Folkestone. I spent my childhood summers on those cliffs and I was always intrigued by the proximity of another world ‘over there’ and just out of reach.
Joanna Scanlan gives an extraordinary and fearless performance as Mary. How did you approach working with her?
I always compile dossiers during the writing process based on the social, psychological and physiological aspects of a character. Then I give them to the actors. So Joanna got a massive bundle with her backstory in it, and I included scraps of articles and books I’d read, photography, and a bunch of family home movies. She also met my mum during pre-prep, who taught her how to make saag paneer and roti. My mum gave her a whole bag of her clothes to try on and get used to as well. It was important for me that Joanna knew where this was all coming from. We were lucky to have time ahead of the shoot to visit Dover and for us to establish a history and connection to the landscape for the character.
Aleem Khan interviewed by Will Massa, Sight & Sound, June 2021
Director: Aleem Khan
©: British Broadcasting Corporation, The British Film Institute, After Love Production
A production of: The Bureau
Supported by the: Sundance Institute Feature Film Program
Developed by: BBC Films
With the support of: Creative England
Creative England via: BFI Network
With the support of the: BFI’s Film Fund
Presented by: BFI, BBC Films
French Production Services: Le Bureau Films
International Sales by: The Bureau Sales
Executive Produced by: Eva Yates, Rose Garnett, Natascha Wharton, Vincent Gadelle
Produced by: Matthieu de Braconier
Co-produced by: Gabrielle Dumon, Gerardine O’Flynn
Line Producer: Dylan Rees
Production Manager: Juliette Cerceau
Production Accountant: Patrick Kiely
Unit Manager: Paul Young
Location Manager: Ben Lee
Location Manager (France): Remi Jollant
1st Assistant Director: Jeroen Bogaert
2nd Assistant Director: Pedro Rilho
Script Supervisor: Shaida Kazemi
Casting Director: Shaheen Baig
Casting Director (France): Lucciana de Vögue
Written by: Aleem Khan
Director of Photography: Alexander Dynan
2nd Unit Director of Photography: David Pearce
Steadicam Operator: John Ferguson
Stills Photographer: Ran Studio
VFX by: Technicolor VFX
Editor: Gareth C. Scales
Production Designer: Sarah Jenneson
Set Decorator: Abbie Kornstein
Costume Designer: Niragemirage
Hair and Make-up Designer: Diandra Ferreira
Titles and End Credits Designed by: Intermission Film
Colourist: Tim Masick
Original Music Composed by: Chris Roe
Cellist: Alice Purton
Music Supervisor: Connie Farr
Production Sound Mixer: David Giles
Sound Re-recording Mixer: Per Boström
Supervising Sound Editor: Joakim Sundström
Fight Co-ordinator: Matthew Thomas Robinson
Joanna Scanlan (Mary Hussain)
Nathalie Richard (Genevieve)
Talid Ariss (Solomon)
Nasser Memarzia (Ahmed)
Sudha Bhuchar (Farzanna)
Nisha Chadha (Mina)
Jabeen Butt (Saadia)
Subika Anwar-Khan (Salma)
Elijah Braik (Farooq)
Adam Karim (Imran)
David Hechter (Anthony)
Pierre Delpierre (removal man)
Jeff Mirza (voice of Ahmed)
Aaron Chawla (voice of young Ahmed)
Hannah Jeal (voicemail voice)
Matthew Walker (weather voice)
A BFI release
The After Love soundtrack, featuring the original score from award-winning composer Chris Roe, released by Thirty Six Minutes, is out now and available on all major streaming platforms.
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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