Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan, "The Invisible Woman") bustles about her kitchen making tea as her husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia, "The Rhythm Section") settles in the living room. They’ve just returned from an Aqiqah ceremony and Mary, an Englishwoman who converted to Islam decades earlier for her Pakistani spouse, regrets that even a female infant’s head must be shaved. It’s a homey scene, but shortly thereafter Ahmed will be gone and his sudden death will reveal a hidden life across the English Channel in “After Love.”
Laura's Review: A-
Writer/director Aleem Khan makes his feature directorial debut with a subject close to him, his own mother having been an Englishwoman who converted just like Mary. Khan takes that familiar piece of his own history and expands it, using it to explore our sense of identity in relation to those around us with unexpected narrative twists and a profoundly moving conclusion. Joanna Scanlan, who won the 2022 Best Actress BAFTA for this role (the film was also nominated for Best Director, Best British Film and Outstanding Debut), is exquisite, a quiet picture of love, grief and compassion as she attempts to process the curveball her husband’s death has pitched her.
In fact, Khan’s entire film has a quiet stillness about it, a calm amidst the storm of Mary’s emotions when she discovers Ahmed had a life with a French woman in Calais. Khan announces the death with no words, the undepicted Aqiqah rite being discussed in the first scene simply replaced with another, Mary, encased in white except for her face, sitting among mourners. She walks along the seaside cliffs of her Dover home, her habit as she once awaited Ahmed’s return, listening to the last message he left on her phone, one full of love and affection anticipating her waving from this very spot.
But it is Ahmed’s phone that confirms what a picture in his wallet suggests, things found as Mary goes through his belongings, burying her face in his dress shirts. At first she tries to call Calais, but twice, upon hearing the Frenchwoman’s voice, her nerve fails her. And so she packs a bag and takes the ferry, arriving at a modest home just as its owner, Geneviève (Nathalie Richard, "Caché," "Knife + Heart"), also arrives from behind her, assuming this flustered Muslim woman on her doorstep is a cleaner, a notion Mary does not disabuse her of. Once inside the home, which is being prepped for a move, Mary will note a photograph much like one she has in her own home, one of Ahmed and a woman framing a young boy…
Again Khan does not spell things out for us, leaving us to imagine a loss Mary had already suffered before his film began. Geneviève, a fashionable, trim French woman, is quite the contrast to the plump Englishwoman wrapped from head to toe, but her teenaged son, Solomon (Talid Ariss), represents a commonality between them. Solomon will also become a wedge, Geneviève resenting the closeness developing between her resentful son and this stranger in her house who cooks his father’s native dishes, speaks his language and shares confidences of a secret love.
Khan, his director of photography Alexander Dynan ("First Reformed") and production designer (Sarah Jennesen) depict the homes on either side of the Channel with the same narrow layouts, Mary’s more traditional, Geneviève’s slightly more haphazard. The sea in between is a dividing line, used in one beautiful scene to contain Mary’s grief as she lies within the foamy surf. Composer Chris Roe accompanies the light and airy visuals with an elegant violin score.
Khan makes great use of doubling and repetition as Mary learns of her husband’s second life. In one heartbreaking moment, Mary panics when a cherished voice message has expired, but a cassette tape emerges to replace it. What Mary does with it is unconditional, the very essence of “After Love.”
Robin's Review: B
Mary (Joanna Scanlan) has lived a quiet life in Dover, England with her Pakistan-born husband, Ahmed (Nassar Memarzia). Then, he dies unexpectedly. Later, as she goes through his belongings, Mary finds the picture of a French woman, Genevieve (Natalie Richard), and personal texts to her on his phone in “After Love.”
The new widow, after Ahmed’s wake and funeral, makes the shocking discovery of his secret life and family just 21 miles away, across the Channel in Calais. She makes the decision to go to France and confront the woman who tried to take her husband. This is where the story, written and directed by Aleem Khan, goes down unexpected paths.
When Mary arrives at Genevieve’s door, no one is home. She finds a place to stay and, once settled, calls the woman’s home but, when she picks up, Mary is silent. Then, she returns to the woman’s address but is mistaken for a cleaning lady there to help Genevieve and her son, Solomon (Talid Ariss), pack up and move. Mary “takes” the job.
What follows is how Mary insinuates herself into the life of her husband’s other family. To me, it is a strange reaction for the widow but, with Joanna Scanlon’s riveting, understated performance, it is very plausible. Her discovery of Ahmed’s secret life charts an uncertain course for a woman who thought that course was firmly set. How she copes with the new facts of life makes for an interesting and unique character study.
I have read a number of reviews on “After Love” and a some have stated that the story has been told “a million times before,” But, I cannot say I have seen a story and performance so focused and quietly intense. Joanna Scanlan holds the camera with few words and much displayed emotional intensity.
Vertigo Releasing releases "After Love" in select theaters on 1/20/23. Click here for playdates.