After Love, 2020.
Directed by Aleem Khan.
Starring Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss and Nasser Memarzia.
After the death of her husband, a woman travels across the English Channel to find the woman with whom he was having an affair.
Joanna Scanlan is one of the most underrated and versatile actors in Britain. She’s perhaps best known for her work as PR expert Terri Coverley on The Thick of It, but she has had small roles in a huge variety of films and TV shows over the last few years. Finally, Aleem Khan’s subtle, tender drama After Love allows her to step into the spotlight with a bona fide lead role. She rises to the occasion exactly as expertly as we have come to expect.
Scanlan plays Mary, who converted to Islam decades ago in order to marry Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). When he passes away suddenly, Mary discovers text messages on his phone which suggest he was having an affair during his many journeys overseas for work. Mary decides to cross the Channel herself in order to meet Genevieve (Nathalie Richard). Unwilling to reveal her identity, she poses as a cleaner assisting with the upcoming house move for her and son Solomon (Talid Ariss) – both of whom believe Ahmed to be alive and on his way to join them.
Khan’s script and story are deliberately sparse, leaving it to Scanlan to provide the intensity and dramatic tension of the story. Scanlan’s performance is vulnerable as a woman shattered out of her domestic comfort by both her grief and the realisation that the last few decades of her life have been built on the myth of a relationship she believed to be committed and faithful. As she boards a ferry across the Channel, she sees a huge chunk of the White Cliffs of Dover fall away, as if the foundations of her identity have collapsed.
This is entirely Scanlan’s movie – a taciturn woman constantly considering herself against the glamorous, talkative French woman portrayed by Richard. In one scene of immense vulnerability, she silently regards her body in front of the mirror, pausing on her stretch marks. It’s a painful and powerful scene which focuses on the way imperfections that don’t matter in a loving relationship can suddenly be thrust to the forefront. Few movies have the courage to represent the ramifications of infidelity in such a frank and unflinching way. When Scanlan later lies in the waters of the Channel, it’s as if she is attempting to cleanse herself of the emotional wounds.
The subject matter Khan is dealing with here is, in many ways, the stuff of melodrama. However, the movie is defiant in its refusal to go big. It’s small-scale to a fault and, often, the austere and minimalist approach makes it difficult to fully invest in the emotions at play. The focus on Scanlan also leads to some sub-plots being rather sadly discarded, such as Solomon’s secret sexuality. In general, Genevieve and Solomon could stand to be more rounded and realised characters, with their solid work undersold by the movie.
But it’s tough to complain too much about the supporting roles when the movie is such a powerful showcase for Scanlan. It’s a quietly tragic and touching film, with cinematographer Alexander Dynan impressively unsentimental in his depiction of Dover’s grey cliffs and the streets of Calais through the eyes of a woman who sees it as not just foreign and alien, but actively hostile. It’s a little too quiet to really pack a punch, but this is consummate work from Scanlan. Hopefully it won’t be her last leading role.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.