Tonight’s BAFTAs were a little light on surprises, but one acceptance speech stood out above the others. When she arrived on stage to collect her Lead Actress prize, After Love‘s Joanna Scanlan walked up to the mike and said, with widening eyes and exquisite comic timing: “Come on!” It was the kind of humble and utterly charming awards show moment we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Olivia Colman. And just look at how well her career is going now.
On the one hand, Scanlan came into the BAFTAs as an underdog. She was up against higher profile contenders like House of Gucci‘s Lady Gaga and Licorice Pizza‘s Alana Haim, and she wasn’t nominated at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards or the upcoming Oscars. But on the other hand, she had already won Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards: one of six prizes After Love had collected there. And anyone who’s seen After Love will know it’s an incredibly special film that deserves every bit of recognition it’s getting.
Written and directed by Aleem Khan in his feature film debut, it’s a supremely moving story of self-discovery. Scanlan plays Mary Hussain, a white middle-aged Englishwoman who converted to Islam many years earlier when she married her husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). After his unexpected death, Dover-based Mary discovers that Ahmed had a secret life across the Channel in Calais, where he fathered a son with his French mistress Genevieve (Nathalie Richard). This devastating revelation is made even more unbearable by Mary’s own experience of motherhood: she and Ahmed’s only child died at a young age.
At first, Mary could seem like the archetypal “wronged woman”. Though Ahmed’s teenage son Solomon (Talid Ariss) had no idea about his father’s double life, mistress Genevieve definitely did. But Khan’s film is far too smart and nuanced to perpetuate this reductive idea for very long. Confused and clearly in shock, Mary takes a ferry across the Channel to find out what Ahmed’s second family are like. In France, she poses as a temporary cleaning woman to become closer to her husband’s mistress and son, who have no idea who she really is. In the process, Mary begins to surrender any moral high ground, piece by piece.
After Love isn’t autobiographical, but Khan has said he was inspired by his own upbringing “between two poles”: his father is Pakistani and his mother is a white Englishwoman who, like Mary, converted to Islam for her soulmate. In her acceptance speech, Scanlan pointedly and touchingly noted that Khan’s mother was both his inspiration in making this film and her own. In addition to this cultural duality, Khan had to grapple with being gay and Muslim, which gave him a heightened appreciation of the way some people are able to compartmentalise their lives. He pours this deeper understanding into a film that’s narratively brave and sometimes provocative, but always firmly rooted in truth.
Scanlan is absolutely heartbreaking as a woman whose once steady life has been shaken to its very foundations. She conveys beautifully how profound trauma is causing Mary to behave in ways she would probably never have thought herself capable of. It’s a tremendously empathetic piece of acting that anchors a film filled with emotional tremors: little earthquakes you’ll be unpicking for hours after the credits roll. After Love is exactly the sort of sharp, specific, surprising British film that the BAFTAs should be rewarding. Let’s hope more people seek it out after tonight’s moment of awards show glory.