The first feature film by Anglo-Pakistani filmmaker Aleem Khan is a tale of secrets and lies, a portrait of people caught between identities and cultures. At its heart is a constrained but wonderfully expressive performance by the versatile Joanna Scanlan, best known to some for her comedic work in shows such as Climb on and The thickness of it, offering here a masterclass on the dramatic power of understatement.
Scanlan is Mary, a white English Muslim who converted many years ago to marry Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), with whom she lives near the cliffs of Dover. Ahmed’s work takes him across the Channel to Calais and Mary regularly stands on the cliffs, greeting her boat “like crazy”. But when Ahmed suddenly dies, Mary discovers that the husband she thought she knew had another life in France, a life in complete rupture with the house they built together in England, with all its triumphs and its tragedies.
Drifting, Mary makes the trip to Calais, the White Cliffs crumbling in her mind as she crosses the water in an unknown world. The more she learns about Ahmed’s newly discovered identity, the more she questions hers – how she got here and where she now belongs.
Khan, who has received accolades for shorts such as 2014 Three brothers, has spoken a lot about how growing up Muslim and gay led him to lead “two very distinct personal lives for a long time.” This sense of divide – of separate personalities coexisting in secret – runs through everything After Love, whose title seems to suggest both the after-effects of trauma and the lingering effects of intimacy and affection. Indeed, over the course of the drama, in which the hesitant and often silent Mary meets the sociable and cosmopolitan Frenchwoman Geneviève (Nathalie Richard) and the apparently cheeky young Franco-Pakistani Solomon (Talid Ariss), we discover that Everybody leads a double life, showing different faces to different people.
Above all, Mary herself is not exempt from such deception. A scene in which her hijab and somewhat servile demeanor make her mistaken for a housekeeper allows Khan to pull off an awe-inspiring dramatic sleight of hand, effectively investing Mary with the super power of invisibility. Having accidentally infiltrated her husband’s hidden existence, she begins to take control of her situation, even as the world around her crumbles to pieces.
A prolonged opening shot of bravery sets the tone for what is to come. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan, whose credits include Paul Schrader First reformed, frames a carefully composed image of domesticity, talks about tea and sag aloo playing in a dark kitchen foreground, the frame finally sinks almost imperceptibly when something devastating happens (off-screen) in the more illuminated distance of the living room. This slow movement matches the next scene where the near-catatonic Mary is seated among animated mourners, setting up a series of mirrored images that will reverberate throughout the film. Whether it’s cracks in the cliffs reappearing like cracks in a ceiling, waves of drowning echoing in the sheets, or Mary gazing at her own reflection in sharply contrasting scenes of defiance and destitution, After Love constantly emphasizes duality, narratively and stylistically.
English, French, and Urdu are spoken, but it’s remarkable how much Scanlan says wordlessly, his eyes telegraphing overwhelming revelations even as his lips remain sealed. By contrast, Richard speaks and gesticulates freely, while Ariss does a remarkable job of capturing both the anger (in a shocking scene, he spits in his mother’s face) and the anguish of a young man torn between his parents, his sexuality, his house.
An ambient seascape score by Chris Roe, sometimes reminiscent of the flowing accents of Nicholas Britell’s music for Moonlight, adds another layer of tension, evoking the disparate fragments of these characters’ experiences, sometimes resolving into longed-for moments of warmth, tenderness and harmony.