Dover housewife Mary Hussain (an excellent Joanna Scanlan) is a practising Muslim. She converted as a young woman, when she married her Pakistani sweetheart. Her faith - in her marriage at least - is tested, however, when her husband dies.
Turns out Ahmed (the hauntingly avuncular Nasser Memarzia, heard and seen on VHS home-movies and cassette tapes) had another family. Whenever he could, he joined his French mistress Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and their teenage son Solomon (Talid Ariss), in their secular Calais home. Mary crosses the channel, only to be mistaken by the frazzled Genevieve for a cleaning woman and given the keys to the house. Genevieve and Solomon don’t know Ahmed is dead. What will Mary do with her new-found power?
This inventive domestic drama investigates a supposedly good marriage and is therefore bound to be compared to Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. I prefer to see it as the flip-side of Rose Glass’s horror masterpiece, Saint Maud. In fact, if you were looking to compare and contrast non-judge-y takes on pious proles, After Love and Saint Maud would make a fabulous double bill.
In both films, a convert labours dutifully in the house of a patronising infidel, but eventually refuses to know her place and delivers a slap that changes everything. Mary is gentle and generous. She’s also insidiously helpful. It’s part of the genius of Scanlan’s performance that we understand why Genevieve, towards the end of the movie, looks at Mary and yells, “You sick f***ing woman!”
Playing Charles Dickens’ wife Catherine in The Invisible Woman, Scanlan, 59, was so ferociously sad she made Ralph Fiennes’ Dickens look like a popinjay, while her turn as a gauche mum in Pin Cushion left no stone of vulnerability unturned. Leading the cast here, Scanlan blindsides us again. But all the acting is superb and the dialogue, from first-time feature director/writer Aleem Khan (born and raised in Kent), is full of lovely and organic little shocks.
True, there are a few clumsy moments. One metaphor is especially obvious. And, given how rare it is to see British films about brown-skinned Muslims, it may rankle with some viewers that a story involving Islam effectively functions as a showcase for a white actor.
Yet, from the minute Mary arrives in France, all of Khan’s decisions pay off. After Love understands what it means to be an odd fish. There’s something about Mary. There really is.
Cert 12A, 89mins. In cinemas from June 4