Joanna Scanlan plays a Muslim convert who discovers a secret about her husband in Aleem Khan’s moving drama.
The White Cliffs of Dover, an enduring symbol of British nationalism, take on a different meaning in After Love. For Mary Hussein (Joanna Scanlan), their crumbling chalk façade represents her identity and sense of self, eroding away and growing ever distant.
Mary is a British Muslim convert who is happily married to Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). Fully integrated into his culture, she prays five times a day, wears traditional Pakistani dress, decorates her home with framed Islamic scripture and cooks aloo palak from scratch. When Ahmed dies suddenly Mary is devastated. She stares glassy-eyed from her crisp, white widow’s hijab, broken and hollow.
A day after Ahmed’s funeral, Mary is going through his phone when she discovers that he had a secret family just across the Channel. Unable to go on without fully knowing the truth about the man she adored, she travels to Calais leaving the collapsing cliffs in her wake.
Scanlan’s performance is extraordinary, her depiction of grief at once beautiful and agonising to watch. For much of the film she acts alone: collapsing into the sea and letting the waves wash over her; rehearsing pleasantries in the mirror and staring at herself naked in the mirror; squeezing the fat and pawing at her stretch marks to try and find an explanation as to how Ahmed could do this to her.
Writer/director Aleem Khan draws all the characters with unusual depth and nuance. Even his approach to Ahmed is gentle and understanding. Khan places no weight or judgement on Mary’s spiritual or cultural appropriations but rather uses it to convey how meeting Ahmed transformed her completely. Even after his death his influence is not something she can simply ignore.
The supporting cast all play their part, too, but After Love belongs to Scanlan, who exudes thoughtfulness and emotional intelligence even when staring out of a bus window. The film doesn’t deal in huge twists and turns but instead slowly unspools as a character study of all those affected by Ahmed’s indiscretions and the complicit role they all played in them. The images of Mary and the white cliffs of Dover will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
Published 19 Oct 2020
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