Joanna Scanlan gives a career-defining performance as a widow who finally decides to stop being invisible.
Mary (Joanna Scanlan) loved her Pakistani husband so much that she converted to Islam for him, and spent her life wearing a head scarf while living a quiet life in rural England. Genevieve was so enamored with a married man that she had a decades-long affair with him while raising his illegitimate child. When Mary’s husband dies and Genevieve begins to suspect that her lover isn’t returning, they’re drawn together by the shared experience of grieving the person you’ve given your life to — and by the fact that they’re both hung up over the same guy.
Aleem Khan’s feature directorial debut is a slow, meticulous examination of the role that devotion plays in our lives and the gaping void that can be left when you lose the basket with all your eggs in it. It’s an imperfect little film about the imperfect little relationships that life often thrusts us into at our lowest points and a reminder of how certain kinds of people can keep affecting us long after they’re buried.
When Mary’s husband Ahmed dies, her world instantly empties. After decades of being a homemaker and a devout Muslim convert, she’s lost the driving force behind her every move for 30 years. But the memories of the person she was before him are so distant that she can’t return to anything resembling her old life. Left without a purpose or any sense of independent self, she starts going through her late husband’s belongings. She quickly finds troubling clues suggesting there was more to her husband than met the eye.
She’s particularly concerned about a photo of a French woman in Ahmed’s wallet, and she is soon crossing the English Channel to visit her husband’s mistress in Calais. There are no plans for confrontation; she simply feels a cosmic urge to explore any piece of information she can find about the man she loved. So she opts to pose as a maid, doing chores as an excuse to spend time with Genevieve and Solomon (Talid Ariss), her husband’s teenage son.
Her process of ingratiating herself into the family is a slow one, and the maid job is a perfect cover story for a woman who has spent most of her adult life trying to make herself invisible. So much of the film’s beauty comes from watching Mary ever-so-gradually learn to act like an independent human again, even if she’s only taking baby steps. She becomes a presence in Genevieve and Solomon’s life, but the nature of the way they met — and the ugly realities of the way their lives intersected — make a conventionally happy ending impossible. These people might be the only thing resembling family that each has left, but they didn’t ask to be brought together.
The three living characters in “After Love” — and the dead one, who might have the biggest presence of all — are like puzzle pieces that come agonizingly close to fitting together but never quite work. The film thrives on the dramatic tension created by people who shared a lover without sharing any values. Mary did her best to live a traditional life and has few regrets about her decisions, but Genevieve’s cosmopolitan lifestyle is completely foreign to her. Genevieve’s love of French fashion, wine, and extramarital affairs makes her a poster child for her home country. At one point, she utters what might be the most French sentence ever written: “I know that being with me makes him a better husband for someone else.”
While the plot might seem melodramatic on paper, “After Love” finds its true power in the emptiness created by the things it chooses to exclude. It’s the story of a love triangle with one of its three points missing, and nobody has the ability to complete the shape or the wisdom to walk away from it. And no matter how hard we try, the audience’s attempts to find easy answers about these people end up being as fruitless as the characters’ own soul searching.
Ahmed was a philanderer with a second family, but he still provided Mary with just about every happy memory that she has. Even with the truth revealed, she’s not willing to give those up. And Genevieve might have had an affair with a married man, but her deep desire for a traditional family life is as sincere as it is ironic. Anchored by a nuanced turn from Scanlan that can hang with some of the best Italian Neorealist performances, the film ends up a beautiful, jagged exploration of the messy nature of being human.
BFI Distribution will release “After Love” in select theaters on Friday, January 20.
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