JOANNA SCANLAN (No Offence, The Thick of It) is Mary Hussain in After Love (Cert. 12A), a former Christian who married a Muslim. She manages to straddle both faiths. When Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) enquires about a relative’s forthcoming baptism, she equates it with the aqiqah thanksgiving ceremony in which a baby starts life afresh in Allah’s presence.
Ahmed works on the Dover ferry. Thereby hangs a tale. After his sudden death, Mary discovers that he also had a Calais family. Devastated, she is literally all at sea. Is what was done for love (religious conversion) now emptied of purpose? Mary continues to practise daily routines of prayer, something to cling on to as life crumbles around her as surely as the white cliffs from which she frantically waves at Ahmed’s ferry. It feels more like drowning. Indeed, she later immerses herself on the French shoreline in a quasi-baptismal act of cleansing and renewal.
Initially, amid loquacious mourners, Mary maintains what is interpreted as dignified silence. In reality, it is akin to a cataleptic state. The scene neatly preludes a consideration of the dualistic nature of our existence. Mary isn’t averse to a double life herself. She passes herself off as the new cleaner for Ahmed’s mistress, Geneviève (Nathalie Richard), and their son, Solomon (Talid Ariss). Deploying Urdu, English, and French signals human difficulty in finding a language intelligible to others, thus hiding the truth about herself.
Mary silently witnesses the Calais family’s secrets. After Love could as easily have been called After Life; for, whatever our faith, how are we to view ourselves in the light of eternity? Was Ahmed an absolute bounder, taking a second “wife” in a religion allowing polygamy? Does Geneviève’s love for another’s spouse have any justification? “Being with me has made him a better husband for someone else,” she argues. Was Mary’s change in religion mere pragmatism to enable her to marry Ahmed?
The writer-director, Aleem Khan, speaking of this, his debut feature-length film, frequently mentions his own anguish at being both Muslim and gay. People living in parallel universes are central to the film. Khan questions La Rochefoucauld’s dictum that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. Being afraid to tell others who we are stems from fear of rejection. Hence the duplicity. Muslims may, like Christians, strive to lead perfect and open lives, but this is unattainable. We are dependent on God’s grace. “Hypocrite” derives from ancient Greece and actors’ masks. From beneath these facades, they were able to offer aspects of our humanity too dangerous for open acknowledgement.
Mary draws on two world religions in attempting to face up to herself and the fractured world that she inhabits. In an outstanding performance, Scanlan’s face conveys “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears or words”. An enveloping hijab may obscure but ultimately assist in Mary’s becoming who she truly is; but it’s the same in this powerful film for other characters and their disguises. Aqiqah or baptism, life is always about starting afresh in God’s presence.
Currently on release in UK cinemas