Written and directed by Aleem Khan, set in the port town of Dover, Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) suddenly finds herself a widow following the unexpected death of her husband. A day after the burial, she discovers he has a secret just twenty-one miles across the English Channel in Calais. Also starring: Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss, Nasser Memarzia, Sudha Bhuchar and Nisha Chadha.
Before diving into the more intricate elements to this film, the first thing that’s surprising is the device it uses to drive its plot, a classic misunderstanding which isn’t immediately corrected and is left much too late to clarify without it being painfully uncomfortable. Mary sets out for the house of a woman whose ID she discovered in her late husband’s wallet along with many texts between them, wishing to confront her and bring this secret to light but when she arrives, she’s mistaken for the cleaner and in a misguided decision to find out more about her, she goes along with it. There brings that classic cinematic frustration, you’re suspended in the tension of waiting for this charade to end and her real identity to be discovered. It certainly does work but it can feel slightly out of place, with it generally being used in a more comical environment and keeps the story in a state of flux for a long time before it gets to the revelation and confrontation you’ve been waiting for.
It’s a conflict in itself because while the story doesn’t feel like it’s moving at too slow of a pace, it takes a long time to get where it’s going. It’s a surprising decision to leave it so late in the game when the whole film is centred around waiting for this moment and in by doing so it removes a more satisfying viewing experience. Putting that to one side, it is very well written, it’s a sympathetic, relatable drama that deals with emotion well and shows the imperfections to dealing with death and secrets, people can’t always be expected to make the right decision and Mary takes a wrong road but it pulls you along with her. It also delves into a lot of different issues, past traumas, deception, religion, parenting and even body image at one point, it does a brilliant job of making its characters feel fleshed out, real and unique. Mary’s experience is one that’s very specific, converting religion for her husband, embracing a whole other culture and way of life and it becoming a huge part of her identity, then finding out he also had a life with another woman she knew nothing about and yet the writing makes it feel very relatable and open, so easy to be drawn in by.
Its tone is very quiet and still, it’s thoughtful and purposeful in style but the direction really brings through the larger emotions of the story. It’s quite restrained for a drama with this kind of story, it plays fairly soft with the intensity that you might expect, it sticks to a more natural and even tone, staying clear of melodramatics or prolonged conflicts. The way that it moves has a certain poetic nature to it, it can be slightly heavy handed with its visual metaphors but it’s engrossing to watch. It’s also supported by some excellent cinematography from Alexander Dynan (First Reformed), it knows the value of capturing the cliffs of Dover and uses it strongly to its advantage, bringing through a sense of isolation and helplessness.
Joanna Scanlan’s performance is what really drives this film home, she’s an underappreciated actress who’s given consistently great performances, the quality of this one is only accentuated by her background being primarily in comedy, showing yet another strong side with this role. It’s a very intimate and emotional portrayal that’s absorbing and grounded. Talid Ariss gives an impressive performance as Solomon, it’s a lot to ask of a young actor but he handles it extremely well, and the maternal chemistry that they build between him and Scanlan is very sweet. Nathalie Richard rounds out the key cast nicely, her role slowly develops but when it reaches its peak, it’s full of raw emotion.
After Love is touching, intimate and emotional but ultimately spends too much time building to its finale to do it justice. There was more to offer here but its restraint, which at first creates a very thoughtful tone, results in a mishandled resolution, it’s executed in an interesting fashion but given the relatively slow movement of the rest of the film, it all too quickly speeds through the ending. However, it’s undoubtedly well made and directed, the cinematography is richly filled with emotion and it’s full of strong performances, Scanlan’s portrayal is affecting and personal, all of which make it well worth watching and an impressive directorial debut.