Why every woman needs to add After Love to their watchlist

Written by Alex Sims

Aleem Khan’s feature film debut, After Love, featuring Joanna Scanlan, is a blistering portrayal of womanhood. This is why you need to add it to your watch list.  

There’s a moment in After Love, the debut feature film from writer-director Aleem Khan, when newly widowed Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) absentmindedly pours out two cups of tea alone in her hotel room. It’s a simple but powerful moment that will cut close to the bone for anyone acquainted with grief.

For it’s in those small domestic moments – forgetfully laying out a place at the dinner table for someone who isn’t there anymore or pausing at the emergency contact section of a form and realising you can’t write the name you usually would –that the throes of grief pack their cruellest punch. When you realise in a wave of pain that the central threads of your life have unravelled and your world will never be the same again. For Mary, however, these unexpected blows of bereavement are layered with something even greater: cruel betrayal. 

A white English woman living in Dover, Mary converted to Islam decades earlier when she married her cross-Channel ferry driver husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), who she courted in secret when they were teenagers.

Mary dresses modestly and wears a hijab. She speaks fluent Urdu, expertly cooks Pakistani food and has woven herself into the fabric of Ahmed’s family. But, after her husband’s sudden death, she makes the devastating discovery that he has been concealing a separate, secret life across the Channel in Calais, where he has a son with his French girlfriend Geneviève (Nathalie Richard).

Scanlan, who beat Hollywood favourites Lady Gaga in House Of Gucci, Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza and Tessa Thompson in Passing, to win Best Leading Actress at the Baftas 2022, exquisitely portrays Mary’s morphing emotions from grief to painful humiliation as her life and identity are called into question and come crumbling down.

Indignant with betrayal and jealousy, Mary travels to Calais to find Geneviève. When she reaches her, Geneviève mistakes her for a cleaner helping her to move house and Mary goes along with the lie. She steals into the other woman’s life, picking through her possessions and discovering earth-shattering revelations in the process.

Through nuanced symbolism, economical but perfectly formed camera shots and staggering performances from the cast, Khan paints a devastating portrait of a dumbfounded woman in freefall as her steady life is shaken to the core.

It’s a story of love, loss, faith and, most vividly for me, female identity. Mirrors crop up frequently and we often see Mary looking into them trying to remind herself of who she is. “Hello… I’m Mary,” she whispers desperately into a bathroom mirror trying to assert herself as everything she’s ever known is brought into question. We see her study her naked body in a full-length mirror, comparing it to the wiry thinness of Geneviève who wears jeans and bleached hair. And we watch her sit in front of Geneviève’s bedroom mirror – trying to insert herself into her husband’s other life in an effort to make sense of it.

Joanna Scanlan beat Hollywood favourites Lady Gaga in House Of Gucci, Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza and Tessa Thompson in Passing to win Best Leading Actress at the Baftas 2022.

Maternal grief is also at the centre of the story. The film is bookended by births, and swirling at its centre is a granite headstone that reveals yet another secret: the death of Mary and Ahmed’s first and only child at just a few months old.

As Mary’s safe, domestic life tumbles down around her, we pine with her as she smells her husband’s shirts in another woman’s room, we break down alongside her when a voicemail message from her husband is erased and lost for good and when she collapses into the Calais sea letting herself be buffeted helplessly by the tides.

But, we also sympathise with Geneviève’s shrewd observation about Ahmed when she says: “Being with me has made him into a better husband for someone else.”

From culture to religion and politics, there are many themes running through the veins of this film that you’ll want to unravel and explore. But it’s the complex and winding relationship between the two women thrown together by deceit that has hypnotised me since watching it.

After Love is a blistering take on what it means to be a woman, how we measure our femininity and how women compare, contrast and weigh ourselves against each other. And in the same way Mary’s quiet moments of grief hit us at full force, its powerful revelations about womanhood will grip you and leave you reeling.  

Images: BFI 

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