Clio Barnard returns with a social realist riff on the classic romcom, and it’s one of her best films to date.
You make a rod for your own back when, as a film director, you emerge from the traps with a copper-bottomed masterpiece. You saddle yourself with the unenviable task of attaining – and even transcending – those lofty heights once more. British artist-filmmaker Clio Barnard is a case in point, as her experimental 2010 feature debut, The Arbor, still casts a magnificent, crooked shadow over her ensuing filmography, which includes 2013’s The Selfish Giant and 2017’s Dark River.
The good news is that, while it still doesn’t quite trump that unique initial missive, Barnard’s new film Ali & Ava gets damn close in terms of sheer quality, even if it does continue her marked swerve towards more softly conventional social realist drama.
This one is an unlikely and intimate love story set on the mean streets of Bradford, chronicling the courtship of super-avuncular British Pakistani landlord (apparently there are good landlords!)-slash-after-hours techno DJ, Ali (Adeel Akhtar), with a crestfallen fount of patience and compassion, Ava (Claire Rushbrook), who lords over a vast brood of errant kids and grandkids. The elements bring them together, as a chance lift home in the pouring rain becomes the catalyst for what blossoms into the deep and spiritual romance that is, of course, beset on all sides by various social and domestic obstacles.
What Barnard does with the film is take the most boilerplate forbidden love scenario (something close to Romeo and Juliet) and cleverly makes it feel real and natural, using the set-up to draw out a subtle yet stinging commentary on the troubled lives of her characters. Ava, for instance, feels like someone wrought from the world of Barnard’s beloved Andrea Dunbar, a survivor of abuse with the scars to prove it who has grown into something of a guardian angel for the similarly fractured souls of her surrounding community.
Ali, meanwhile, is in the process of secretly separating from his wife, and knows that his vivacious, excitable character has led to both great successes and crushing failures in his life so far. The landscape is presented as a crucible for abject poverty, small-minded political attitudes, religious conservatism, hair-trigger violence and the feeling that society is constantly holding you back from achieving your true potential.
It’s serious stuff, the majority of which lands in a way that never wreaks of educational hectoring or a director attempting to unduly foreground her own sense of social consciousness. What makes the film work so well is a lightness of touch and constant recourse to humour, which bolsters the authenticity of this cinematic world, but also amplifies and toughens any darker aspects when they do arrive.
The best comparison to be made is that Ali & Ava recalls the early work of Shane Meadows, films like A Room for Romeo Brass and This Is England, in the way that it oscillates between euphoria and violence at the drop of a hat. There’s always the feeling of supreme control in terms of what we’re seeing and what we’re feeling, and the surprising tonal swerves come hard and sudden.
There are a few sequences that don’t work, such as a cringey musical moment early on in which Ava and Ali realise they are able to set their cultural differences aside, but the vast majority do. Barnard fills the frame with expressive, off-the-cuff details, and there’s even a few comically surreal touches involving front garden trampolines. It’s a tender and, eventually, joyful film, powered by two extraordinarily lived-in performances from Akhtar and Rushbrook.
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Published 11 Jul 2021
Clio Barnard follows up The Selfish Giant with an overwrought domestic drama starring Ruth Wilson.
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