Four years after his BAFTA win for short film Three Brothers, Aleem Khan returns to the London Film Festival with his debut feature, After Love, a stunning and compassionate drama, exploring love, loss, and forgiveness.
After Love wastes no time throwing you in at the deep end. In the simple, but brilliantly executed opening scene, Mary and Ahmed Hussain (Joanna Scanlan, Nasser Memarzia) return home from welcoming a baby into the extended family. Almost poetically, minutes after the celebration, Ahmed dies unexpectedly before his wife’s eyes. Although it might seem obvious that the more we saw of the characters, the more emotional this sudden death would be, but Khan tells us from the very beginning that the film isn’t about Ahmed, it’s about his widow. We don’t know everything about him and, as it turns out, neither does she.
Her grief is illustrated beautifully from the small details, like accidentally pouring two cups of tea, to the large, isolated space on the cliffs of Dover she would usually share with her husband. With the exhausted, mournful expression, Scanlan makes the widest of spaces look empty. Even the house, in which Mary and Ahmed seemingly lived happily for years, looks empty, despite her presence. Her performance is remarkable, making you feel as lost and lonely as her character.
This also makes it heartbreakingly obvious that Mary was truly in love; a doting, caring wife who would do anything for him (including converting to Islam), which only makes it more painful to discover Ahmed was in a secret relationship. Across the channel, she desperately makes her way to Calais to meet her husband’s mysterious lover (Nathalia Richard) and discovers not only her but also their son, Solomon (Talid Ariss). They speak of Ahmed openly, unaware of the presence of his wife and his death.
It’s in Calais that emotions become slightly muddled. Mary mistakenly deceives her way into the house, posing as their cleaner. Despite the overwhelming amount of times Ahmed is mentioned in a home that rarely saw him, she expresses not a single ounce of anger. It’s not particularly believable in the first instance that a person could remain calm while their deceased husband’s mistress throws away his shirts or talks about him in the way that happy wives do, but even if Khan was attempting to suggest that Mary feels simply no resentment towards her at all, the small moments of near-confrontation suggest otherwise. Although the heartache she keeps within herself is expressed in perhaps the most emotional scene when she collapses against the prayer mat and sobs, it seems to only shed light on the sorrow she feels. It would’ve been more telling to show other forms of her grief.
Much like his undiscovered stepmother, Solomon is also tortured by the absence of Ahmed. Talid Ariss is an exceptional young actor and his character portrayed in much more depth. His anger changes from that of a hormonal teenager, to that of a troubled young man as Khan delves deeper into his relationship between his parents, his sexuality, and he when he begins to form a new bond with Mary. They help each other through their loss without realising it and their small moments together are so touching. They show a small glimpse of how life would be for them had they not been torn apart by their unfortunate truths.
While the ‘found family’ trope is often overdone and, with this film in particular, very predictable, the loneliness that surrounds the three of them throughout the film makes it far from a cliché. The death of a man they each loved leads them to each other and despite how different they might have seemed before, they were each hurt by him. With their tragic similarities, they are the perfect match of people to grieve with and, eventually, forgive.
The simplicity of After Love isn’t a setback. Khan finds emotion in the smallest of things and turns its beautiful setting into a hauntingly melancholy backdrop. Joanna Scanlan was the perfect cast choice, her gentleness making her heartache all the more upsetting. While I think the boat could’ve been pushed out a little further and the character explored a little more, it’s still a moving tear-jerker.
Words by Libby Briggs
Other reviews from the London Film Festival can be found here.