Wednesday 9 March 2022

Life in a northern town: "Ali & Ava"

Ali & Ava
 marks a return to form for writer-director Clio Barnard after 2017's tinny and unpersuasive Dark River: a crowdpleasing multicultural romance between protagonists of a certain age, serving up social realism with a lighter, gentler touch. The plot's all there in the title, carved onto the screen like lovers' names on a tree. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a Pakistani Muslim landlord in a picturesque hilltown on the periphery of Bradford; Ava (Claire Rushbrook) the white primary school teacher he offers a lift to in a torrential downpour. This is a new beginning for folks who'd possibly given up the ghost on companionship. As we join Ali, he's at the tail end of a failed marriage that goes beyond separate beds to separate rooms; later, we learn that one of those rooms might have been converted into a nursery, had tragedy not befallen the couple. Ava has her hands full with a menagerie of children and grandchildren, and that extended family proves the major obstacle standing between her and any happiness: some of those kids are hyper-protective of their late father's memory, while others display residual undercurrents of suspicion and prejudice. Ali is now a common enough name on the UK census for this to be mere coincidence, but any cinephiles in the room will likely be reminded in passing of 1974's Fear Eats the Soul (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in some territories), and we all know how that turned out.

That Barnard is more romantic than Rainer Werner Fassbinder should come as no surprise, and it's evident in her initial sketch of Ali as a larky goofball. (Which hasn't always been this viewer's experience with landlords; property management may demand a certain humourlessness.) It makes sense to have cast Akhtar, best known for his comedy work (Four Lions, The Big Sick, Killing Eve). But he's a subtle, insinuating dramatic performer, too. As Ali & Ava proceeds, it becomes clear that Ali's singing and dancing masks a silent heartbreak, and may also be his way of channelling the latent mania everyone around him is prone to succumbing to. (One strength of Barnard's screenplay: a careful, unsensational folding-in of mental illness.) The film's secret is that Ali's not some gadabout, but a man who feels more responsibility than he's letting on; Akhtar absolutely gives him that weight. Rushbrook, for her part, may still be best remembered as the daughter Brenda Blethyn accused of having "a face like a slapped arse" in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies; lines like that tend to stick. Here, she's quietly affecting as a woman who clearly never expected to have to relive the first flushes of love - the late-night texts, the explanations of self and circumstances, the sudden proximity to another body - at her relatively advanced age. When Ali smiles at her, years drop off them both; the odometers of their hearts go into reverse. Yet Barnard very cleverly allows their doubts and fears to cloud the second half: we, too, start to wonder whether this love can go much further than the end of the road.

If we relax nevertheless, it's from the knowledge that Barnard is as fond of these characters as she is interested in them. And it's not just Ali and Ava: most of these characters are more open to other cultures and ideas than they realise, or are perhaps willing to admit. Celtic names for a granddaughter are floated over a pint; we hear of Ava's late father, an Irishman who was fine with his offspring's first, Indian boyfriend, but drew a fierce line when Ava started seeing an Englishman. Even the skinheaded son who pulls a samurai blade on Ali after he finds him in his mum's front room is introduced working out to a Bollyrobics channel. Barnard gets to the cognitive dissonance within the British national character - why we've donated £100m in a week for Ukraine while our elected Government is being miserly with visas. (Are we happier paying refugees to stay away?) A more overtly political filmmaker might have pushed harder here, and used this romance if not to drag their audience's noses through the mud then to interrogate their choices. Curiously, this is a post-Brexit film that never mentions the B-word; indeed, the set-up is wholly pre-Brexit. Barnard is working in a long tradition of Plays for Today and Films on Four, dramas that could have been made any time from the 1960s onwards. (I wondered what might have happened had Ava fallen for the Polish plasterer Ali counts as a tenant. Barnard's boogeymen are ghosts - a pair of boots handed down by a fallen National Front footsoldier - rather than the clear and present dangers of Farage and the ERG.) Still, we should be thankful for a film that gets clear of London and the nation's country houses, and at the very least examines the attitudes and assumptions at play elsewhere; and Barnard mitigates against any harshness of judgement by keeping an open heart and mind - exactly the kind of open heart and mind that allows people in the real world to fall in love while pushing fifty. This is a film that you sense has a lot of soft power.

Ali & Ava is now showing in selected cinemas.

No comments:

Post a Comment