Savina Petkova on After Love (Aleem Khan, 2021, UK).
First, there’s the unquantifiable grief of losing a loved one. Then there’s the tactile reality of them missing: a woman’s hands absent-mindedly placing two tea bags ready to boil before realising there’s no one to pass the steaming cup to; a look of longing, caressing the walls of a widow’s house. Captured on an attentive camera, these minute gestures have now acquired a certain heaviness.
After Love, as its title indicates, is a film concerned with the aftermath of loss—of love, of companionship, of meaning. Director Aleem Khan, himself of mixed English-Pakistani heritage, has spent seven years preparing for this debut feature, not without the support and recognition of institutions such as the BBC, BFI, and BAFTA. After being selected for Cannes Semaine de la Critique in 2020, After Love impressed audiences and even managed to take home a few awards in a year of pandemic festival chaos. Unsurprisingly, the award nods were in recognition of actor Joana Scanlan’s impeccable performance as the newly widowed Mary, a white English Muslim convert.
The film begins with a brief introduction to the ‘before’, a prosaic episode of Mary and her husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) returning home in the coastal town of Dover after a visit to a friend’s house. With a firmly held long take, the camera pays undivided attention to a house in order, a family of two, and their repeated signs of comfort and intimacy. Such cosiness, in turn, emanates from the mise-en-scene: the carpets, the colours, and the words exchanged in Urdu. Then, an artificial separation finds the frame sliced in two, when DoP Alexander Dynan (First Reformed) cements the opening sequence’s emotional discrepancy between foreground (Mary making tea) and background (Ahmed resting on the couch). The split not only signifies a rupture within a familial unity, but its deep staging also foreshadows the crucial narrative turn when Ahmed falls suspiciously silent on the couch. Having a character die in the first few minutes of this particular household idyll of a film seems like the much-needed narrative propeller, and while After Love is quite conscious of its melodramatic stakes, it never spells them out. From beginning to end, the film is planned as a restrained, slow-paced journey of self-assertion.
After her husband’s funeral, Mary observes all the necessary rituals of grief and the camera shares her loneliness and quiet despair: whether she’s accepting condolences or refusing to have visitors; most of all, the viewer partakes in the uncompromising intimacy of listening to the last voice message Ahmed ever recorded. The stark contrast of material absence and immaterial memories, mediated through technology, is shown to be the lifeline which the unknowable woman clings to upon repeated listening (around a dozen times throughout the film). Conveniently, it’s the formalism of After Love that sustains an even pace as revelations lead Mary deeper into her husband’s secret life. It appears that Ahmed, who worked for years on the Channel ferry, had another family in Calais, with a (non-Muslim) wife named Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and an eleven year old son.
Aside from the unflinching camera, a series of plodding tracks and pans facilitate an observational mode of presence that also places the spectator into the role of a co-conspirator. Since the audience spends a lot of the film’s screen time with Mary alone, the intimacy that results from a shared loneliness is then channelled into a mode of observation that prompts ethical questions. When Mary decides to confront Ahmed’s French mistress, the audience is as taken aback as she is when Genevieve mistakes the unknown woman for a cleaning lady. Joanna Scanlan’s face emotes confusion and self-restraint, while her physical performance expressly conveys the agony of moving on to an unknown life. Therefore, the role of Mary benefits from having less dialogue than one might expect for a production that relies heavily on misunderstandings, and the film is at its best when confined to the protagonist’s solitary experience of heartache and disappointment.
However, After Love attempts at presenting a more complex relationship between a wife and a mistress in Ahmed’s absence, it only becomes more obvious how central he was to both women’s lives. For a story about female kinship, the film is too ready to simplify the emotional weight it initially placed upon Mary. Again, form comes to the rescue: the carefully plotted pace works in favour of a subdued dramatic effect and the two women don’t properly ‘meet’ (as in, both knowingly meet each other) until the film’s very last act when reconciliation is due to happen.
As a careful investigation of a character’s lonesome journey to self-affirmation, After Love delivers only a portion of the requisite sentimentalism, and Scanlan’s superb stoicism allows only the slightest cracks to appear, chiseling at Mary’s psychological integrity. However, there is the persistent feeling that neither woman is the actual protagonist of the film. Everything begins and ends with Ahmed, and his physical absence makes it all the more obvious how films—and whole worlds—are constructed in the gravitational orbit of a (perfidious) man.
If we emphatically bracket the implications of such a phallocentric assumption (and we shall, since we learn that Mary voluntary took Islam as her religion only to find out years later that Ahmed had a non-religious wife and freely consumed alcohol when in France), what’s left of the film insinuates the dwindling possibility of transnationalism, globalism, and even more so within the context of the UK/Europe relationship. Brexit coming into effect in 2021 has altered the unproblematic relationship between France and the UK (exemplified in trade and travel through the Channel) and now, the dream of swapping lives, families, and lifestyles, a dream typical for Europe post-1989, is troubled by new practicalities.
Even if After Love doesn’t reference such issues explicitly, Ahmed’s position reveals the yearning for an overseas metamorphosis, a change from coast to coast, adaptability that was successful in its deception while he was alive, and destructive in the agony caused after his death. Inevitably, the film deals with the defeat of an idea: that of a reversible identity transformation (with Ahmed as an example after his death), and the fabricated notion of a fluid, all-inclusive, post-European subject. On a personal level, the film forces Mary to face her own loss of a solid identity. But on socio-political grounds, After Love declares the death of the United Kingdom’s European dream. — Savina Petkova
Director Aleem Khan
Writer Aleem Khan
Cinematographer Alexander Dynan
Editor Gareth C. Scales
Cast Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss, Nasser Memarzia
Duration 89 minutes