Director: Aleem Khan | 1h 29mins | Drama
Living in the port town of Dover, Muslim convert Mary (Joanna Scanlan) loses her husband of many years suddenly. Whilst cleaning his things, she find’s a secret phone, and starts to uncover his hidden life.
Writer/Director Aleem Khan has made a name for himself in the UK for his engaging and original shorts, After Love being his feature length debut. Another screening from the BFI London Film Festival in 2020, Khan creates a patient and emotional story of grief and identity. It opens on a single unbroken shot of Mary and husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) returning one evening, he sits down in an armchair as she makes tea, and he passes there and then. It’s very sudden, one moment they’re talking and the next he’s gone, and becomes one of the issues Mary has to deal with, the complete unpreparedness of the situation and uncertainty on how to deal with it.
Much of the runtime is spent solely with Mary, or rooms filled with people but Mary still feeling alone. Because of this, Scanlan needed a superb performance to carry the narrative, which she definitely succeeds. Not a newcomer by any means, she’s mostly featured in TV and independent cinema (The Thick Of It‘s Terri being one of her longest running performances), but few times has as much pressure on her acting to make the film work, something she rises to excellently portraying the grief and confusion of her situation with ease.
After clearing her husbands possessions Mary finds a phone she hasn’t seen before, the messages between Ahmed and another woman in France – Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) – discussing everyday issues, including their son. Already stricken by grief, this is where the confusion lies – how has he kept this a secret, and why? The questions Mary starts to raise are almost silent, she doesn’t tell any friends or family of this revelation, so much of this lies in Scanlan’s visual performance, a story she tells superbly. After this, she decides to meet the family in question, unprepared and sheepishly finding her way around France Mary finds her way into Genevieve’s life without her known who Mary is.
Much of the film is nuanced and quiet, which does create a grounded and emotional film – but sometimes the subtly is too much, some of the emotional impact is lost.
Interestingly there doesn’t feel like any judgement is placed on Ahmed and the decisions he’s made, which does create a more nuanced narrative. Mary can’t seem to be angry at him, she changed her entire life for Ahmed and devoted so much time to his culture and religion it almost seems pointless to get angry about it, especially now he’s passed.
Much of the film is like this, nuanced and quiet, very patient, which does create a grounded and emotional film – but sometimes the subtly is too much, some of the emotional impact is lost through the lack of anything being said or shown. It’s a strong debut by Khan, and rare that early on in their career a filmmaker will be too subtle rather than not subtle enough, but After Love is a interesting meditation on grief and devotion, and a career high for Joanna Scanlan.