‘After Love’ Review: Joanna Scanlan Shines as a Grieving Widow in a Sensitive Debut Feature
Ordinarily, The News84Media doesn’t review films that were released more than a year ago. But an exception had to be made for After Love, a transcendent chamber piece that was slated to debut in Critics’ Week at the 2020 edition of Cannes — the one that didn’t actually take place. Even without that high-profile launching pad, the film nevertheless went on to garner awards and praise in its domestic markets (the UK and France) and beyond, especially for lead Joanna Scanlan. Her exceptional performance as Mary/Fatima, an English woman who converted to Islam for marriage years ago and suddenly finds out that her husband was leading a double life, is a miraculous study of grief, jealousy and ultimately compassion, all executed with very little dialogue. .
This debut feature from writer-director Aleem Khan, whose wise script and sensitive direction feel like the work of a more seasoned auteur, is opening stateside just a bit too late for the awards traction the central performance deserves. If the film had the Twitter support from famous fans that Andrea Riseborough has received for her performance in To Lesliethe lists of Academy Award nominees might have looked a little different.
The Bottom Line
On the money about love and grief.
Cast: Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss, Nasser Memarzia
Director-screenwriter: Aleem Khan
1 hour 29 minutes
An opening scene — unfurled in one long-held, static, elegantly framed shot — looks on as Fatima (Scanlan) returns home to her house in Dover, on the coast of England, after an evening out with her ferry captain husband, Ahmed ( Nasser Memarzia, seen only in this sequence, although his voice echoes through the film). She is clearly ethnically white, but Fatima is clad in a headscarf and the shalwar kameez ensemble that’s traditional among Pakistani women, and she chats with Ahmed in a mix of English and Urdu. When their conversation between rooms comes to an abrupt halt, she goes to investigate why he’s stopped talking, and the ensuing silence is held for a beat long enough to suggest the worst has happened. A cut transfers us to a different room in the house, sometime later, where a tear-free Fatima sits stoically in funereal white, surrounded by wailing relatives.
Suddenly a widow, Fatima gets on with the long process of adjusting to her new life without the man she had been with since she was in her teens, and for whom she converted to Islam. Shots of her praying in Arabic suggest that her attachment to the culture and Islam remains sincere and deep. (Although the film is not strictly autobiographical, Khan writes in a director’s statement that the script was partly inspired by the experience of his white English mother who converted to marry his Pakistani father.) But when she finds an identity card for a French woman, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), among her husband’s belongings and many affectionate text messages on his phone from someone named “G,” Fatima does the math and works out that he was unfaithful to her.
Taking a ferry on the same line her husband worked for, Fatima sails across the English Channel to Calais and tracks down Genevieve, a svelte blond whose physicality differs significantly from Fatima’s shape. When Genevieve immediately assumes that Fatima is the cleaner she booked from an agency to help her get her house in order before she moves, Fatima goes along with this mistake instead of correcting it. Introducing herself as Mary (her original name before she converted), she uses the mix-up as an opportunity to learn about the woman Ahmed had been seeing secretly for years.
Further surprises are in store when Fatima/Mary learns that Genevieve and Ahmed have a son, a teenager named Solomon (Talid Ariss) whose raging hormones and anger at his missing father have been redirected towards his mother, who doesn’t realize Ahmed is dead. or that he had a wife in England. It turns out Genevieve always knew Ahmed was married to someone named Fatima, but she thought her rival was Pakistani, and of course she has no idea that he’s died.
Khan releases all this backstory information in a slow, naturalistic drip while still keeping the drama tense, with further surprises in store, right up to the end. Although on paper Fatima/Mary’s decision to keep up the charade of being a cleaner seems just a little nuts, thanks to Scanlan’s beautifully physical performance — even the way she cooks or works a vacuum says something about her character — it makes a kind of emotional sense Fatima/Mary chose to be a good Muslim housewife and found purpose in creating order and running a home, and was rewarded with a genuinely kind and affectionate husband, despite his flaws. When he’s taken away, she’s all at sea, and not just in a metaphorical sense. Obviously, she has complicated feelings about Genevieve, the one person in the world who loved and understood Ahmed as well as she did. And yet a sort of affection grows between the two women while Genevieve is still unaware of who Mary really is, while Fatima/Mary finds it even easier to care about confused, lonely and fatherless Solomon.
The film’s endgame is perhaps a little too tidy but remains satisfying all the same, thanks in part to the finely harmonized performances between the three leads and the neatness of Khan’s writing, which finds a way to allow Ahmed to literally add his voice, via recorded messages. Chris Roe’s aching, plaintive score extends the film’s emotional palette without swamping it in syrup, while the lensing by DP Alexander Dynan adds a welcome warmth even when the characters are in the darkest, coldest of places.
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