It isn’t uncommon for films to feature the tragically romantic notion that in one day – or even an hour or second – your life can be turned upside down, whether from experiencing a death, global event, or simply meeting a certain person. As expected, this can turn a quiet moment of grief into a sensationalist tragedy, making the internal external with cinematic spectacle. But often, films are more effective when they keep the devastation subtle – case in point, After Love, despite not developing relationships as fully as I would have liked, is quietly gut-wrenching in its depiction of grief, loneliness and betrayal.
After returning to their Dover home from a family gathering one night, Mary (Joanna Scanlan) prepares some tea while her ferry captain husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) sits on the sofa, both unaware that these are his last moments before an abrupt, unexplained death that leaves Mary stranded by herself, consumed by pain. However, when she discovers texts on his phone from a woman in Calais, she realises that the life she knew with her husband may have been a lie. While this plot is in the realm of high melodrama, the minimalist style of the score and cinematography allow writer-director Aleem Khan to focus on Mary’s subjective experience of the world, the emotions coming from her realist reactions rather than the drama of the situation.
But the most engrossing part of After Love isn’t the histrionic story – instead, I was drawn to the exploration of borders, identity and transnationalism embodied by the characters. As both a white English woman and a devout Muslim, Mary challenges assumptions of the intersection of race and religion, as well as demonstrating the progressive idea that these should not be boundaries to love. However, this comes at a cost, with people making assumptions about her decisions and character, and the risk of Ahmed’s family never truly accepting her. Ultimately, the teenage Solomon (Talid Ariss) is her character foil: an ethnically Pakistani boy who knows little about how to engage with this side of himself. Through After Love, Khan is able to explore the multinational facets that make up so many, acknowledging both the inclusivity and the difficulties of being a part of multiple cultures simultaneously. The stunning wide shots of the English channel from Dover represent this beautifully: the other side is so close, yet so far.
But the film wouldn’t be nearly as brilliant as it is without the unbelievably talented Scanlan’s aching, nuanced performance at its core. For most of After Love, she maintains her composure, only releasing a couple of tears of disbelief at Ahmed’s funeral. This serves to make her brief outbursts all the more powerful, especially as they come when you – and like Mary – least expect them. One particularly powerful scene shows her praying as she normally does, but breaking down upon the final bow in a rupture of misery as the familiar reminds her of how unfamiliar her life has become.
After Love is far from perfect – at the close, I wished that Khan had gone farther with the character relationships, and a lack of many new insights in the latter half sometimes left me a little bored. However, it is a film with the power to be completely emotionally devastating as well as prescient on topics of transnationalism that Khan has a thorough, personal understanding of – deeply impressive for a feature debut.
After Love played at the London Film Festival and will be released in early 2021 via the BFI.
You can read more of our LFF coverage here.
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