After Love (2020)
Directed by: Aleem Khan | 89 minutes | drama | Actors: Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss, Nasser Memarzia, Sudha Bhuchar, Nisha Chadha, Jabeen Butt, Subika Anwar-Khan, Elijah Braik, Adam Karim, Narayan David Hecter, Pierre Delpierre
There is barely fifty kilometers between the British port city of Dover and its French counterpart Calais. As the crow flies, because instinctively the distance is much greater. Especially in the film ‘After Love’ (2020), the debut of the English-Pakistani writer and director Aleem Khan. For main character Mary Hussain (the fantastic Joanna Scanlan, finally in a role in which she can showcase all her talent) those fifty kilometers across the Channel are the bridge to a completely different world, where nothing is as she always thought it was. Where her entire existence falls to pieces because of the discoveries she makes there. Scanlan especially caused a furore with comedic roles in hilarious series such as the political satire ‘The Thick of It’, ‘Getting On’ (about the vicissitudes in an elderly ward) and ‘Puppy Love’, about the sweet and lee in a dog school. In addition, we saw her as the delightfully unorthodox Detective Inspector Viv Deering in the crime series ‘No Offense’. She has also had film roles, including in ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (2003), ‘Notes on a Scandal’ (2006), ‘The Invisible Woman’ (2013) and ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’ (2016), but these were without exception supporting roles in which she could not display all her talent. Now that she does get that chance in ‘After Love’, the British grabs it with both hands. And that certainly did not go unnoticed, because Scanlan earned a British Academy Film Award and a British Independent Film Award for her role.
Where Scanlan normally portrays sharp-tongued characters, as Mary Hussain she shows that she can also convey a sea of emotions without using too many words. Mary is married to Pakistani Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), for which they convert to Muslim. She threw her whole life upside down for him: no more alcohol, veiled on the street. But then Ahmed suddenly dies. After the funeral, his relatives try to involve her in their grieving process (her own family is nowhere to be seen – would she have sacrificed them too?), but Mary prefers to deal with her grief alone. She is shocked when she finds a photo of an unknown woman named Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) while searching through his belongings. His phone contains all kinds of messages from and to the same woman, which clearly show that she and Ahmed saw each other regularly and loved each other. Mary decides to take the ferry to Calais and visit Genevieve. The Frenchwoman thinks the veiled lady is the new cleaning lady, very painful for Mary, but she goes along anyway because she can snoop around Genevieve’s house for free and discover even more secrets about her late husband. It turns out that he has led a complete double life and little by little Mary unravels how the fork is in the handle. The fact that she does know who Genevieve is, but Genevieve has no idea who she is, and the fact that she alone knows that Ahmed has died, gives her a certain power and she does not hesitate to use that power when her that’s how it works.
There you have it; if you think you know someone from scratch, you seem to have been fooled all along. As a viewer, we immediately feel sorry for Mary. The sacrifices she’s made, both visible and invisible (so we can fill it ourselves), seem to have all been for naught. She and Genevieve seem opposites at first glance, but turn out to have more in common than they initially think. And Ahmed turns out not to be the only one with a secret. Khan wrote the screenplay himself, partly based on his own experiences, which we see in particular in Solomon (Talid Ariss), Genevieve’s teenage son who plays a crucial role in the whole. In the hands of lesser actors, all those complications would probably remain on the surface, but the two protagonists of ‘After Love’ pull us into the depths with great acting. Scanlan is fantastic as the betrayed wife, who sees her seemingly good marriage crumble piece by piece. Not only is she confused and angry, but she is also fascinated by the secret life that Ahmed led. Every step she takes from now on is one of uncertainty and everything she thought she knew about life and the world is in jeopardy. Her curiosity makes the naturally mild-mannered woman sly and cunning. Where in her comic work she is usually exuberant and verbally sharp, here it is mainly the silent looks that betray a hidden world. Scanlan gets excellent resistance from the French Nathalie Richard, a woman who is used to living with secrets and gets a taste of her own dough here and Talid Ariss also plays strong, as the young Solomon who carries his own big secret with him.
‘After Love’ is a little gem. It is not for nothing that the film was the big winner with six prizes during the presentation of the British Independent Film Awards 2021. Not only was Scanlan awarded as best actress in a leading role, Ariss also received an award for his supporting role. Khan himself took home the awards for best film, best director, best screenplay and the Douglas Hickox Award for best debut director. Prices don’t always say everything, of course, but in the case of ‘After Love’ they are a good indicator. This film is an impressive and nuanced debut from writer/director Aleem Khan and a great opportunity for Joanna Scanlan to show a different side of herself. Finally she gets the space she should have had much earlier, what a top actress!