An exception had to be made for After Love, a transcendent chamber piece that was scheduled to premiere during Critics’ Week at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, the one that never occurred.
Even without that high-profile launching pad, the picture went on to win honors and gain plaudits in its local markets (the United Kingdom and France) and beyond, particularly for lead actress Joanna Scanlan.
Her extraordinary portrayal as Mary/Fatima, an English woman who converted to Islam for marriage many years ago, is a stunning study of pain, jealousy, and finally, compassion, delivered with minimal words.
This debut movie from writer-director Aleem Khan, whose insightful writing and sympathetic direction feel like the work of a more seasoned auteur, is opening in the United States just a tad too late for the key performance to receive the awards attention it merits.
If the film had garnered the Twitter support from notable fans that Andrea Riseborough has received for her portrayal in To Leslie, the lists of Academy Award nominees may have appeared differently.
Fatima (Scanlan) returns to her home in Dover, England, after an evening out with her ferry captain husband, Ahmed, as the film’s opening scene unfolds in one long-held, static, exquisitely composed shot (Nasser Memarzia, seen only in this sequence, although his voice echoes through the film).
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Fatima is plain of white ethnicity, but she wears a headscarf and the customary Pakistani shalwar kameez and converses with Ahmed in a mixture of English and Urdu.
When their chat between rooms abruptly stops, she goes to find out why he’s stopped talking, and the resulting stillness is prolonged for a beat to suggest the worst has occurred. A cut takes us to a separate room in the house, sometime later, where a tearless Fatima, dressed in funeral white, is surrounded by weeping family.
Fatima immediately begins the lengthy process of adjusting to her new life without the man she has been with since her teens and for whom she converted to Islam. Images of her praying in Arabic indicate that her devotion to the culture and Islam remains true and profound.
Khan adds in a director’s statement that the script was partially inspired by the experience of his white English mother’s conversion to marry his Pakistani father.
Fatima calculates that her husband was unfaithful when she discovers an identity card for a French woman, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), among her husband’s things and numerous romantic text messages from someone designated “G” on his phone.
Fatima takes a ferry on the same company for which her husband worked and sails over the English Channel to Calais in search of Genevieve, a slender blonde whose physique contrasts drastically with her own.
Instead of addressing Genevieve’s assumption that Fatima is the cleaner she hired through an agency to help her clean her home before moving, Fatima goes along with the misunderstanding. Introducing herself as Mary (her old name before she converted), she takes advantage of the mix-up to learn more about the lady Ahmed had been secretly seeing for years.
Fatima/Mary discovers that Genevieve and Ahmed had a teenage son named Solomon Talid Ariss, whose surging emotions and resentment at his absent father have been channeled toward his mother, who is unaware that Ahmed is deceased or that he had a wife in England. It turns out that Genevieve always knew that Ahmed was married to a woman named Fatima, but she believed that her competitor was Pakistani and is unaware that he has passed away.
Khan reveals all of this historical material in a gradual, genuine manner while keeping the drama tight and full of surprises until the very end.
Due to Scanlan’s superb physical portrayal — even the way she cooks or uses a vacuum reveals something about her character — Fatima/decision Mary’s to keep up the deception of being a cleaner makes a kind of emotional sense, although appearing a bit illogical on paper.
Despite his imperfections, Fatima/Mary chose to be a good Muslim housewife and found purpose in maintaining order and running a household; as a result, she was rewarded with a genuinely kind and devoted spouse. She is completely lost when he is taken away, and not only in a metaphorical sense.
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Clearly, she had complex sentiments about Genevieve, the only person in the world who loved and understood Ahmed as well as she did. While Genevieve is still unaware of Mary’s true identity, a form of friendship develops between the two women, while Fatima/Mary finds it even simpler to care about the confused, lonely, and fatherless Solomon.
The film’s conclusion is perhaps a tad too slick, but it stays rewarding due in part to the well-balanced performances of the three characters and the deftness of Khan’s screenplay, which allows Ahmed to physically add his voice through recorded messages.
Chris Roe’s yearning, plaintive score broadens the film’s emotional palette without smothering it in sugar, while DP Alexander Dynan’s lensing offers comforting warmth even when the characters are in the coldest, darkest places.
After Love Trailer
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Is After Love based on a true story?
The plot of After Love, however, is not autobiographical. Mary discovers after her husband’s death that he had a hidden girlfriend and child in Calais.
What happens at the end of After Love?
Mary initially accepts the cassette from Solomon, but she ultimately allows him to keep it. The two embrace with tears. In the concluding scene, they visit the White Cliffs of Dover and gaze out over the English Channel.