How to rebuild after love? How to decide who to become, following a loss so fundamental that all coordinates seem thrown in the air? These and other difficult questions are explored in Aleen Khan’s magnificent first film, set between Dover and Calais. Joanna Scanlan, best known as the hopeless press officer Terri Coverley in The Thick of It, plays Mary, a white woman who falls in love at 14 with a Pakistani-born schoolfriend. Years later, she converts to Islam for Ahmed, learns Urdu and begins wearing a veil: acts of devotion to a man she has elected to sacrifice everything for. But at the start of the film, Ahmed dies, leaving Mary at sea, almost literally: she and Ahmed built their life together in a comfortable house by the cliffs of Dover, which threaten to crumble to chalk at any moment.
At first it seems the film will be a fairly conventional examination of life after loss, as the title promises. But soon Mary unearths something shattering as she is sorting through the rubble of Ahmed’s belongings: texts on his phone from a woman he clearly loved. An ID card bearing an address in France sends her across the Channel to confront her late husband’s alluring mistress, Genevieve (Natalie Richard). But in Calais, on a street as sunny as Dover is dour, the confrontation between the two ‘other’ women scatters into an exchange that’s less easily categorised. Genevieve assumes in a cheerfully prejudiced way that this headscarfed woman is her latest cleaner, so she invites her into the house, and Mary, being British and grief-stricken, cannot bring herself to clarify the situation. Gradually, they become one another’s confidantes, and the film becomes almost unbearable: it’s clear that the misunderstanding underpinning the women’s relationship will have to untangle, but when?
The film isn’t so much a study of what happens after love, but an invitation to consider the different kinds of love that can flower in the unlikeliest places. Mary and Genevieve seem opposites – Mary is self-effacing, squidgily maternal, while Genevieve is looser and more fiery – but really the two women are alike: both have made swingeing compromises for love. While the bones of the plot are conventional – triangulated love, microscoped yet again – the quality of the filmmaking and the subtlety of the screenplay stop it from slackening to soap opera. Scanlan is mesmerising as a meek but dangerous woman who has been ‘humiliated’, she accuses the woman who cuckolded her, multiple times. While Ahmed might have been more thoughtfully fleshed out – photos and family videos never quite nail the character – the story is really about kinship and the extraordinary resilience that can draw women together and hold them fast.
After Love is released on 4 June in cinemas.