After Love (4 stars)

After Love

This super sensitive debut from Aleem Khan follows Joanna Scanlan's bewildered widow

BAFTA-nominated for his short film Three Brothers, British writer-director Aleem Khan sets his first feature between Dover and Calais, focusing on a grieving widow who uncovers the secret life of her husband in the immediate aftermath of his death. It's a gently told, sensitively captured tale of a woman learning to stand firm as her world starts to crumble around her.

Joanna Scanlan plays Mary Hussain, a White British lady living in Dover who, many years ago, converted to Islam in order to marry her Pakistani partner Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), a ferry captain who routinely crosses the Channel. We only get the briefest of glimpses of the Hussains' marriage at the outset, but it seems a relaxed and happy one. When Ahmed dies unexpectedly, Mary's distress is compounded by an ID card she finds in his wallet and a series of text messages on his phone, which indicate a second relationship. Tracking down this woman to Calais, she discovers that Ahmed not only had another long-term partner (Genevieve, played by Nathalie Richard), but a teenage son too (Talid Ariss's Solomon). It is suggested that Mary's own child died some time ago.

This quiet and contemplative film perfectly captures Mary's shell shock, following both her husband's sudden death and the revelation that he was not who she believed him to be. Scanlan is known for her comedy chops and has given some fairly in-your-face performances – in Paul Abbott's No Offence for example – but she's beautifully subtle here. Her Mary cuts a quite magnificent figure as she puts aside her grief in search of the truth and ends up inadvertently posing as a cleaner, which gives her ideal access to her husband's second home. In one remarkable scene, an overwhelmed Mary lays down in the sea, letting it cool and buffet her, before allowing it to wash roughly over her face. In another, she automatically goes to make two cups of tea and is devastated when she catches herself.

It's not a film that draws outright conclusions or tells us what to think, Mary doesn't know herself; life sometimes throws things at you where there are no easy answers. Instead, it asks interesting questions about identity, sacrifice, possession, and cultural friction and fusion. Mary and Genevieve have lived fundamentally different lives with the same man, one fairly traditional and devout, the other with more secular freedoms. Who was it that gave him the most? Who saw the real Ahmed? Was it either, or both? It also captures the little judgements we make about each other and, in its compassionate and cathartic conclusion, makes us want to do better.

Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 4 Jun.

After Love

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • UK
  • 1h 29min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Aleem Khan
  • Written by: Aleem Khan
  • Cast: Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss

After the death of her husband, a widow discovers some shocking secrets.