Grief is an intangible thing. There’s a great quote by Lemony Snicket: “if you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” Its power comes from its ability to construct devastation entirely personal to you – and you can never see it coming. It’s enough to upend your entire world, especially when it can take the person who you consider that to be; learning that you never truly knew that person though, is an entirely different experience, as After Love reveals.
Aleem Khan works double duty as our writer and director into the unravelling of Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan)’s life following the death of her husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). We’re granted access into their final moment together, a cutesy if not mundane evening at home, with Mary making the tea and Ahmed resting his feet – they seem tranquil together, serene almost. That quiet serenity is ripped from us, as all sound drains from the world as Mary’s process of grieving begins.
Joanna Scanlan is viscerally impassioned through the difficult journey of navigating not only the loss of her husband, but the subsequent reveal of another family, hidden away in Calais. Grief is a remarkably tricky emotion to emulate because of the many avenues it may lead someone down – After Love gives us an insight into some of these journeys, but our main one is with Mary. Her frame quivers and quakes as though at any moment she may shatter into a million pieces, unable to repair herself from the double devastation she has to deal with. The longer we spend with Mary, the more we come to realize how desperately she’s struggling to grapple with not only her grief, but the existential confusion and doubt that manifests from Ahmed’s infidelity; in some ways, his life with Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) surpasses his with Mary’s, almost insultingly so. Scanlan’s performance is an outstanding voyage of keeping one’s head above emotional waters that threaten to drown you, continually pulling you down.
In more ways than one, After Love explores the faiths we hold within ourselves and towards others – Mary’s faith in Ahmed, her own faith in Islam, Genevieve’s faith in Ahmed’s love. In many ways, faith and grief are similar in their intangible qualities; they both come in so many different forms and reactions, and can easily become entangled in one another. Khan takes us on an exploration of how we respond when these faiths are challenged, upended even. Mary continues to practice Islamic traditions but finds herself struggling more and more as the weight of her husband’s secret family gradually crushes her – this is how her adaptation to a new life and culture is rewarded? When your faith is indelibly tied to your love for someone who’s betrayed you, can you heal or is it a rift unhealable?
It’s a richly complicated emotional tapestry that doesn’t seek to entirely condemn nor absolve anyone of their actions. Genevieve mentions how we all eventually break the rules we set for ourselves, and she’s right, in a way. Mary and Genevieve have in essence dated two different men – Mary knew the Ahmed from teen-hood to adult, while Genevieve only ever knew the experienced older man he passed as. The rules Ahmad may have set himself as a teenager may not even apply to the rules that the old Ahmed now lived his life by – we only ever learn about Ahmad through these two women, he’s a complex cipher that’s distilled through the memories and emotions of both Mary and Genevieve.
Khan’s visual metaphors follow Mary as she attempts to get answers and eventually confront Genevieve, as cracks appear in the one-perfect white facades of both Mary and Genevieve’s homes – these haunting ruptures in their homeplaces unite them under a shared emotional fissure of a confusion-tainted despair, struggling to come to terms with one another and themselves. It’s a beautiful motif that is solemn used but when it is, it’s powerful. Once the cracks in the homes begin to show, so does Mary. We eventually get our confrontation, but just like every emotional moment, it’s fraught with complexity – Khan never lets up and always maintains a heavy fog of ambiguity; how we feel about Mary and Genevieve shifts from moment to moment, until our final shot brings us a glimmer of clarity.
After Love will be released in UK & Irish cinemas from 4th June.