After Love Review: A Quietly Devastating Slow Burn On What It Really Means To Belong

"After Love" is a movie built on contradictions ... or the appearance of them, at least.

Running a brisk 90 minutes yet still earning the (complimentary) label of a slow burn, writer/director Aleem Khan's feature film debut all but vibrates with the filmmaking confidence of a 20-year veteran in the industry. Never hesitant to let scenes slowly unfold at their own pace, Khan allows the opening moments to set the tone in impressive fashion. Holding steady on a simple scene of domestic mundanity between Pakistani husband Ahmed Hussain (Nasser Memarzia) and his white British wife Mary (Joanna Scanlan), the movie flips on a dime when Ahmed suffers a sudden medical emergency that leaves the 60-something Mary to pick up the pieces entirely on her own.

By itself, the idea of Mary converting to Islam for her husband's sake and fully embracing his culture also represents quite the juxtaposition. But when the harsh reality soon sets in — innocently looking through her late husband's wallet and phone, Mary discovers to her shock that Ahmed had been hiding a years-long affair from her — the most provocative realization of all rocks the very foundation beneath her feet. As it turns out, despite building a whole new life together and bridging whatever gap may have once existed, maybe she never knew her husband very well, after all.

To the unsuspecting viewer, Khan initially draws out the plot of "After Love" as if it were yet another standard meditation on grief. There's plenty of that, to be sure, as Mary wanders through the aftermath of the funeral in a haze. She visits the lookout point atop the White Cliffs of Dover where she used to await her husband's return from his frequent voyages as a ship captain. She listens to the last voicemail he ever left her on repeat. She even struggles through her salah, the daily prayers in accordance with her faith.

But once Mary stumbles upon evidence of her husband's lover Geneviève (Nathalie Richard) in France, something within this grief-stricken widow compels her to seek out this rival for her affections, confront her, and let the chips fall where they may. What she discovers instead, however, isn't a lesson about coming to terms with grief, but a much more complicated and nuanced insight into the nature of belonging.

Don't sleep on Joanna Scanlan's intensely vulnerable lead performance

Despite a humble budget and relatively low-scale approach, Khan ensures that the story at the heart of "After Love" is anything but — thanks primarily to the secret weapon up his sleeve in actor Joanna Scanlan, working in perfect synchronicity with a deceptively sharp script. Upon traveling to Calais, France, Mary locates the target of her ire and the cause of her crumbling worldview (Khan breaks from his restrained tone and adds a touch of blunt surrealism to the proceedings, notably with a disturbing vision of the White Cliffs disintegrating before Mary's very eyes while she crosses the English Channel on her way to France) and finds nothing like what she expected. Mistaken for a cleaning maid before she can even get a word in and promptly enlisted to help Geneviève prepare for an upcoming move, oblivious of her lover's tragic passing, only Scanlan's fiercely internalized (though never inaccessible) performance keeps this otherwise dubious situation on firm footing.

Though we may struggle to comprehend exactly why Mary would silently go along with such demeaning circumstances under the eye of her late husband's mistress, "After Love" never betrays even a hint of uncertainty or indecision — not unlike Mary herself. With the patience of an expert storyteller, the middle hour of the film steadily unspools new layers and new revelations that constantly flips the script on viewers. The appearance of Geneviève and Ahmed's illegitimate teenage son Solomon, played by Talid Ariss, infinitely complicates an already-messy scenario, but more intimate details like finding Ahmed's clothing in the laundry or seeing Solomon watch old home videos of his father cause the otherwise rock-solid Mary to show cracks underneath her impenetrable surface.

The more she surreptitiously inserts herself into Geneviève's life and learns through her unique perspective that someone comfortable with adultery isn't necessarily a monster, the less Mary's able to pull back from her own morbid curiosity and the surprising bond she's already begun to develop with this family. The character's entire emotional journey, remarkably enough, remains held together by Scanlan's calm, measured, and intensely vulnerable performance.

Pathos in unexpected places

Although it's only a matter of time before the (metaphorical) ticking time bomb under the table goes off and secrets are finally revealed, "After Love" stays far removed from cheap sources of drama and wrings its drama out of only the most human impulses of those involved. The film could've easily been weighed down and smothered by its own ambition, with Khan taking the skeleton of an almost Asgar Farhadi-like morality play and mining something wholly original out of it. (It should be noted that Khan derived much of Mary's character and backstory from that of his own mother.) Instead, what we're left with is something far more personal and introspective that more than justifies our investment in three of the most unlikely individuals you'll ever meet.

Ultimately, the missing figure of Ahmed at the center of each one of these lives proves to be the ghost that forever links them together. Their worldviews, backgrounds, and life experiences couldn't possibly be more different from one another, but a staunch refusal to judge one another prevents them from robbing themselves of a vital sense of connection. And in one last ode to the power of contradiction, the devastating turns in the final act give way to a stirring conclusion that somehow, someway, feels downright heartwarming.

For a film that grapples with so many capital-letter themes about loss, identity, and perseverance, it's the central question about belonging — and our difficulties in ever really getting to know how we fit into another person's life, even a spouse or parental figure — that truly sets "After Love" apart. Audiences aren't given any easy answers or profound truths to be placated by, but the final image we're left with suggests something far messier and more potent. The journey to that destination ends up being well worth the ride.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10