After Love: A widow's negotiation of a faith-strewn tragedy
In his feature directorial debut, English-Pakistani filmmaker Aleem Khan takes inspiration from his own mixed heritage upbringing to tell this emotional story about womanhood, religion and the bonds we make and break in life.
English actor Joanna Scanlan, best known for her comedic roles in The Thick of It and Getting On, takes the lead as Mary Hussein, a white Muslim convert living in Dover on the Southeast coast of England with her ferry captain husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia).
When he passes away suddenly, Mary, who had already lost a son, finds herself completely alone. It’s unclear what Mary’s relationship is like with those on her side of the family; hers and Ahmed’s teenage romance had been frowned upon since the beginning and upon his death, only his Pakistani family and those from their local mosque seem to be checking in on her wellbeing.
After Love is a sometimes devastating examination of domesticity, womanhood and the sacrifices women make for the men in their lives
She’s coasting along. Khan uses slow close-ups and a lack of dialogue to capture the heartache swelling inside of Mary as she silently mourns her lost love. She’s keeping calm and carrying on until one day, she discovers that the man she had dedicated her life to for over three decades had been leading a double life, one that takes her the 21 miles across the English Channel to Calais where she finds another woman claiming his romantic partnership too.
It’s this clash of cultures that earns pangs of sympathy for both women involved. For while Mary converted to Islam to be with Ahmed and become the devout Muslim wife accepted by his family, the other white woman, a French single mother Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), had no such expectation placed upon her independent, seemingly atheist lifestyle. But Genevieve only saw her lover when Ahmed came to port which meant her life, and that of her son was put on hold to accommodate his father’s infrequent commitment to them.
A misunderstanding leads to Mary slowly ingratiating herself into Genevieve and her son Solomon’s life and the tension of this deceit and the new discoveries she makes about her late husband complicate matters and her feelings about the life she has led. Grief can be a powerful thing and the shocking revelation of a second family has Mary’s world crumbling, shown figuratively through the Dover cliffs to the cracks in the ceiling of her cheap hotel room.
Though these symbolic images might be a bit on the nose, Scanlan articulates Mary’s crisis with enormous depth. One gleans a keen sense of loneliness in Mary’s movement as she continues to carry out her religious duties but becomes less rigid when she adjusts to the knowledge and circumstances of her husband’s betrayal.
Scanlan captures the inner turmoil of a woman questioning her life, her body, and the things she seemingly sacrificed for the man she loved. She runs the gamut of grieving emotions without ever veering into melodramatic territory while Talid Ariss, as her husband’s illegitimate son, heaves with adolescent heartache, resentment and anger over the dysfunctional nature of his upbringing.
Even at the film’s most fraught, Khan ensures a grounded realism sustains the feelings and emotions on display and it’s a testament to the actors that they are able to fill a space with such conflicting, overwrought emotions with little cuts or editing to enhance the drama.
These scenes are allowed to build up, combust and breathe again in the aftermath of the pain and grief these people, who were once strangers, are now bonded by.
As a family drama, After Love is a sometimes devastating examination of domesticity, womanhood and the sacrifices women make for the men in their lives. It’s a well-paced interlude into the transnational and cross-cultural reality of so many families but with the focus on two women and their relationship to a Muslim man who is only acknowledged in the periphery, through voicemail messages and home videos, it is somewhat jarring that the perspective throughout is so white.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint