Aleem Khan opens up to Nick Levine about his deeply moving debut film which centres on one woman’s journey of discovery following the death of her husband
Anchored by a supremely poignant performance from Joanna Scanlan (Getting On, No Offence), Aleem Khan’s debut film After Love never strikes a false note. For this reason, it’s also beautifully human and deeply moving. Soon after losing her husband Ahmed, Dover-based Mary Hussain (Scanlan) discovers a hidden mobile phone containing messages from another woman in France. With total shock compounding her unprocessed grief, Mary makes the 30-mile across the English Channel to Calais, where she finds that her ferry captain husband had a longtime mistress, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), and a teenage son called Solomon (Talid Ariss).
Though the characters and their predicament are entirely fictional, writer-director Khan says the film’s roots lie in his own experiences of growing up in a mixed-race environment. Khan’s mother is a white Englishwoman who converted to Islam for her soulmate, much like Mary, while his father is Pakistani. “I think on a very cellular level, I always felt like I was kind of between two poles,” he says. “There was my British identity and Asian identity, and then there was [my] being gay and Muslim, which felt at the time like polar opposites to me.”
Khan’s fundamental aim was to make a film about the importance – and potential fragility – of our identities. “I guess I wanted to ask the question: ‘What is left of ourselves when the people we construct our identities around leave us or maybe even betray us? When that happens, what do we see staring back at us when we look in the mirror?’” he says. In the film, an understandably anxious Mary arrives at Genevieve’s house ready to ask questions, but the Frenchwoman mistakes her for a locum housecleaner. This gives Mary carte blanche to find out more about Ahmed’s second life without revealing her true identity, which allows her to make some questionable choices along the way.
In less intelligent hands, this scenario could have slipped into schlocky soap opera, but Khan keeps it realistic by empathising with his characters rather than imposing black-and-white judgements on them. He says he wanted to avoid the “reductive binary” of portraying Mary as the wronged woman and Genevieve as some kind of “bitch-mistress”. “When we meet Mary, she’s clearly been betrayed, so you could say she’s a victim in some ways,” he says. “But she also becomes complicit in Ahmed’s deceit because she goes to another country, infiltrates this other family knowing that he’s dead, then withholds some very vital pieces of information from them. That’s a very transgressive act.” Khan says he is keen for the audience to “question their own moral compass” as they follow Mary’s deception, and to ask themselves: “At what point would I start telling the truth?”
Initially, Mary and Genevieve seem to be very different people. The Englishwoman converted to Islam for Ahmed and became his wife, whereas the Frenchwoman was given no such option; she knew Ahmed was married and wouldn’t contemplate divorce, so she was destined to remain his mistress. Genevieve has raised a teenage son with Ahmed – a son who doesn’t know about his father’s other life – while Mary suffered the trauma of losing her only child at a young age. However, the two women appear drawn to one another, perhaps because on a subconscious level they detect a shared experience of Ahmed.
In a way, Khan says, their mutual intrigue actually extends further. “It’s kind of ironic actually, but Genevieve and Mary are almost like mirrors of each other,” he says. “Each sees in the other the thing that always wanted the most: Mary wanted a child and Genevieve wanted more stability.” Though After Love is far too smart to give us a happy ending, there is a suggestion that the two women and Solomon have established some kind of bond. Once again, this idea is firmly rooted in Khan’s own life experiences.
“I’m very close with my family,” he says. “Obviously there have been difficult times with [my] seeing the faith I grew up in and my sexuality as being very far [apart], before I began to understand they don’t have to be. But I think growing up gay, your chosen family is a very real thing. I have my [biological] family, but I have other families too. So I kind of wanted to leave these characters in a place where they choose each other. No one’s lying any more, everyone’s on the same plane and maybe they’re able to jump off and start something new.” It’s an ambiguous but fitting conclusion to a film that reminds us, in an understated way, that we can always recalibrate our identity to welcome in others, however unexpectedly they arrive in our lives.
After Love is out now.