20.7 miles is all that separates English Dover from the port of Calais, though perceptively this distance feels a lot larger. It is after all another country, another culture, and seemingly a world away from Dover. This is certainly the case in Aleem Khan’s devastating drama After Love, exploring two separate relationships that occur on either side of the English channel facilitated by one shared husband.
Sat in a stunned, quiet silence whilst the room blurs in action behind her, when Mary’s husband, Ahmed suddenly dies her world is thrown into turmoil. A Muslim converted upon marriage, Mary (Joanna Scanlan) finds herself lost upon the death of her husband, without her ‘other half’ she must work to define herself by her own means. Though when she discovers a card belonging to a French ‘Genevieve’ (Joanna Scanlan) in her husband’s wallet, and his phone begins to vibrate with her name, she decides to travel to Calais to discover the truth for herself.
Onboard the ferry across the channel she witnesses a large section of the iconic white cliffs of Dover erode and fall away, a fine illustration of her own crumbling identity ebbing away with every passing day since the death of her husband. Joanna Scanlan is a tightly coiled spring in the lead role, capable of explosive fury though only after long stints of reflective thought and careful probing analysis. Upon her arrival in Calais, she is invited into Genevieve’s home unwittingly, wherein she begins to peel back the family’s identity layer by layer and peer into its fractured soul.
Grappling with her own sense of identity after such a shattering encounter, Aleem Khan carefully unravels Mary’s character with deft tender care as each of her agonising decisions are contextualised behind clear motivations. Her story weaves effortlessly with Genevieve’s, both realising they are victims of the same individual’s greed. “We all break the rules we set for ourselves in the end,” Genevieve utters in a powerful conversation discussing her own affair. It’s a potent line of dialogue that works well to amplify the film’s main train of thought, posing questions of personal identity, and particularly the identity imposed on an individual by religion.
What’s left is a deeply human story of the search for identity in the barren wake of death. As Mary probes deeper into the private life of the French family, she attempts to live vicariously through lives she’s yearned to live, allocating herself a new borrowed identity. Speaking to the BFI, director Aleem Khan, stated: “I wanted to explore how our notions of identity are constructed, and more specifically, who we construct them for”. Such emanates from Khan’s script that is rich with context and subtle nuances expressed in a look, smile or wistful stare, making the performances of Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, and newcomer Talid Ariss totally effortless.
Whilst many films explore the meaning of love during a relationship, as the title of Aleem Khan’s film suggests, After Love masterfully examines the unpredictability of what’s left afterwards. Well articulating the intimate tussle between two conversing identities, Mary’s character drifts like the lapping waves of the Calais beach, utilising overwhelming grief to sculpt for herself a new image and sense of purpose. It’s a captivating journey.