It’s a quiet domestic scene. A Muslim couple arrive home, she makes a cup of tea in their nicely equipped kitchen and chats to him while he settles down in his armchair in the next room in the background. She takes him his tea, speaks to him and he doesn’t reply. There’s no sound, we can’t hear what she says next, but her actions make it very clear that something sudden and terrible has happened.
That brief moment at the start of After Love changes Mary’s (Joanna Scanlan) life for ever. An English woman who converted to Islam to marry the man she loved years ago, she’s an integral part of the community attending the mosque in Dover, who all support her in the following days. After the funeral, she sits amongst them, clad from head to toe in white, her face a picture of numb pain. It’s only when the dust settles and she starts going through her husband’s possessions that she discovers he had a secret life, something she’d never suspected, and her need to find out more takes her across the Channel to France.
The sudden death of a loved one is a sledgehammer to the heart and debut director/writer Aleem Kahn plunges us into the depths of Mary’s devastating shock and grief in a matter of minutes. She’s the centre of the film, its emotional core and the person driving the story, one that starts like a pilgrimage but shifts almost imperceptibly into something closer to a detective story, a search not just for the truth but to find out more about the other people involved and whether she, Mary, played even the smallest part in her late husband’s other life. All of which means it falls to Scanlan to carry the entire film. It’s not quite a one woman show, but there are times when it feels like it. The great thing, however, is that she is flawless in the role, a woman who’s made serious personal sacrifices to marry the man she loved, who is still devoted to the way of life she’s adopted, and has had her life thrown into turmoil through no fault of her own.
That she wears a hijab for the majority of the film asks even more of her as an actress. With her face so strongly outlined by her hijab, we concentrate on it even more, examining every expression through that searching camera lens. But Scanlan is more than up to the task, delivering a performance full of subtlety and delicacy. Your sympathies are totally with her, although in the final third of the film it’s apparent she’s not the only person who’s suffering and you doubt some of her decisions. It’s thanks to her that you stay with the film at the halfway point, where the narrative stalls somewhat and the whole thing sags in the middle.
Low key and modest, rather like Mary herself, After Love relies on unanswered questions to build up the tension. Slowly and steadily, everything is revealed and a neat conclusion reached – perhaps too neat. But there’s no question about the quality of Scanlan’s portrayal. She’s staggeringly good and, while a great character actress, is easily one of our most underrated performers. This could – and should – change all that.
Drama | Cert: tbc | BFI Distribution | London Film Festival, 15 and 16 October 2020 | Dir. Aleem Kahn | Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss, Nasser Memarzia.