By Jamie Sellers

Had cinemas been open to capacity all year, a movie like After Love – Kent-born writer-director Aleem Khan’s intriguing drama – would certainly have garnered more attention and been easier to track down. If you like interesting independent films, and don’t need explosions every five minutes, this is one you shouldn’t let slip through the cracks. Come to think of it, it does have explosions, but of a less pyrotechnic sort.

I mainly know lead actor Joanna Scanlan from potty-mouthed political satire The Thick of It, and from Getting On, the quietly brilliant hospital sitcom she co-wrote and starred in with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine. A quick browse through her CV reminds me I saw her in supporting roles in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Notes on a Scandal, and In the Loop. And there are a host of other British TV and film productions I would certainly have missed, but where I expect she was as reliably good. Nevertheless, After Love presents her with a lead role in which she shows a degree of emotional depth that previously she rarely got the chance to display.

Scanlan is Mary, a recently widowed converted Muslim living in Dover, who makes a shattering discovery. Among the possessions of her late ferry captain husband Ahmed, she finds a French woman’s ID card and a series of anonymous and unanswered texts. Seems he’d lived a whole separate life across the Channel, apparently over a number of years. But when Mary sets off on a journey to Calais to either confront, or possibly break the news of her husband’s death to the other woman, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), she finds she’s unprepared for the moment. Meeting on the doorstep and still wearing her veil, she’s tongue-tied, not helped by her lack of French, and is assumed by Genevieve to be applying for the position of a domestic. Before we know it, Mary is scrubbing the steps, sorting through Ahmed’s (other) wardrobe, and imagining the life he enjoyed on his periods away from home.

From here on we’re with Mary all the way, trying to imagine what’s going on in her head and, upon each new revelation, wondering which way she’ll go. Earlier in the film we see her among Ahmed’s family after he’s laid to rest, with no sign of her own relatives. She really is alone now. Scanlan’s performance is often wordless, but her eyes and face convey so much. Her marriage, her religion, everything she thinks she knows is questioned. It’s a devastating unravelling of her life and identity – and it’s only part of the story.

A shot of Mary standing in her hijab on the white cliffs of Dover looking out is one of several arresting and thought-provoking images in the film. There’s a lot going on here. Joanna Scanlan is on screen in almost every scene, and never less than captivating. A few years ago, Olivia Colman was elevated to national treasure status after appearing in Paddy Considine’s harrowing Tyrannosaur. Scanlan’s turn in After Love is deserving of similar plaudits.

After Love screens at the Electric Palace, Hastings, on 2nd September and will be followed by a Director Q+A.

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