Director/writer Clio Barnard returns to her cinematic homeland – urban Yorkshire – for Ali And Ava. Screened at Cannes earlier in the year and with its UK premiere next month at the London Film Festival, it’s sharing its tender story with Toronto audiences in its own unique way. For this is a love story about love, not romance, and one that gently subverts our expectations.
Both live in Bradford and, given their social circles, it’s surprising their paths have never crossed before. Ali (Adeel Akhtar, also in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain) is an aspiring DJ, loves music and the closest he has to a job is collecting the rent from his tenants. He lives next door to his mother and the rest of his family, but what they don’t know is that he and his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) have separated. They’re living under the same roof for the sake of appearances. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a teaching assistant, a single mum and a grandmother, spending any free moments looking after the youngest member of the brood, as well as trying to keep the family together and cope with the emotional aftermath of the death of her abusive husband. And where she lives is a no-go area for the local cabbies.
They both have pasts and they both have problems. But, unlike her previous films – The Selfish Giant in particular – hope and warmth is never far away in Barnard’s depiction of their lives and their loves. This is no traditional, idealised romance but a coming together of two people who, to the outside world, have little in common but are kindred spirits just beneath the surface. Nor are they the working class stereotypes we might expect. She might live in what one of Ali’s family describes as a “chav” neighbourhood, but Ava has a first class degree and is proud of it. Ali is a complex character, almost childlike in his enthusiasms but he has mood swings and keeping his secret from his family takes its toll. Yet they share ambitions and hopes for the future, which are reflected in the tone of the film, even in scenes when nothing much seems to be happening.
Their relationship causes friction in their respective families, especially Ava’s, whose eldest son Callum (Shaun Thomas, who was also in The Selfish Giant) violently takes against his mother’s new boyfriend. He has an emotional journey of his own that forms part of the backdrop to the main narrative. But watch Ali and Ava together, and they look like they’ve been a couple of years, comfortable in each other’s company, waking up together in bed as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And for them, it is. Barnard gives us gentleness, tenderness and kindness instead of physical passion, treating their love in a down to earth but nonetheless respectful way.
Ali and Ava’s respective, and contrasting, preferences in music form most of the soundtrack to the film. It’s sometimes an awkward mix, but it brings some energy to the story, as well as demonstrating that appreciating the tastes and cultures of others can be surprisingly easy. It’s another instance of Barnard’s optimistic yet practical tone in a film essentially about acceptance and, of course, love.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Toronto International Film Festival, 12, 13, 14 and 15 September 2021|Dir. Clio Barnard | Adeel Akhtar, Claire Rushbrook, Ellora Torchia, Shaun Thomas, Natalie Gavin.