As the second nominee for this year’s IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award at LFF, After Love is currently my pick to win it. Aleem Khan’s debut is intense, emotionally charged and surprisingly uplifting, and has a stance and viewpoint on love and relationships that British film often doesn’t explore – but absolutely should.
The film is absolutely anchored by a tender and gutting lead performance from Joanna Scanlan, who plays Mary, a Muslim convert whose husband Ahmed (a brief turn from Nasser Memarzia) dies unexpectedly. Following this, she deals not only with grief, but a shocking revelation about his personal life blows open a world of confusion and heartbreak for Mary. Scanlan handles this turbulent period of Mary’s life with such care, even though her motivations are occasionally infuriating, with Khan’s self-penned script often revealing that Mary’s actions aren’t always for the best, despite good intentions.
The conceit of the film takes a hugely interesting turn as Mary travels away from home to find out exactly what Ahmed was hiding, Without going into too many details – it’s a film best experienced knowing as little as possible – it exposes Mary to a life completely different from her own, almost a mirror-image of what she thought was only hers. Yet it’s Mary’s decision to become involved – often too involved – in Ahmed’s secret life, where the film’s main conflict and tension comes from. It leads to some fascinating encounters between her and Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), with the characters so complex, and the situation so unusual and nuanced, that you end up feeling sorry for all of those involved.
And that’s what makes it such a fascinating film: it’s not a cut-and-dry story of good and evil, of right and wrong, but an exploration of how flawed we all can be, and the toxicity of secrets that are left to fester. Khan balances the drama so well, and it’s perfectly paced to the point where there truly isn’t a dull moment or wasted line, building up to a gratifying and emotional climax that is hugely satisfying. Often it’s a very mournful watch: not even over Ahmed’s death, but over the loss of what Mary thought her life was, and the time she had stolen from her.
Yet deep down, its ultimate message is one of growth, unity and combatting pain with love, even under circumstances where it hardly seems possible. It’s a beautiful and uplifting experience, despite often being so desperately sad, and perfectly displays the care and panache with which Khan crafts characters and conversations. He’s certainly put himself on the map with After Love, marking himself as one of Britain’s most unique upcoming filmmakers, if for anything the sheerly distinctive voice in this film. It’s stunning, intensely gripping and painfully human, and although it’s said a lot, you genuinely won’t have seen a film like this before. After Love is a fantastic watch and one of the best of London Film Festival so far.