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‘After Love’: A widow discovers her husband’s secret life

Actress Joanna Scanlan is devastating as a woman facing first grief, then betrayal in a BAFTA-winning performance

(3 stars)

“After Love,” the feature-length debut from British writer-director Aleem Khan, is a quietly compelling exploration of identity, grief and the secrets loved ones take to the grave. But there’s no mystery about what makes this measured melodrama so devastating: Joanna Scanlan’s steely performance as a widow pulling at the threads of her late husband’s carefully woven double life.

Scanlan, a 61-year-old British television veteran anchoring a film for the first time, claimed best actress honors for this wrenching role at last year’s British Academy Film Awards, in a ceremony that otherwise telegraphed every acting win at the Oscars. Now that the movie has landed stateside, American audiences can relish a performance that, despite scant dialogue, speaks volumes about the character’s unmoored emotional state.

Scanlan plays Mary Hussain, a middle-aged White Muslim woman in the English port town of Dover whose world is wrecked when her Pakistani husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), dies suddenly. Captured in one shot — as Mary makes tea in the foreground, Ahmed wobbles into his armchair in the background and the two share one last casual conversation — the opening scene underscores the unsettling truth that those closest to us can be taken away at a moment’s notice.

“After Love” then allows Mary time to endure Ahmed’s absence, as she wanders Dover’s coastal cliffs, catches herself habitually pouring a cup of tea for her late husband, and listens to his last voice mail over and over. But Mary soon discovers a photo of an unknown woman among Ahmed’s possessions. When she finds texts on Ahmed’s phone that indicate he was having an affair in Calais, the coastal French city he frequented as a ferry captain, she boards a boat in search of answers.

Khan approaches that scandalous premise with subtlety. As Mary meets Geneviève (Nathalie Richard), the other woman, and her temperamental son, Solomon (Talid Ariss), the filmmaker lets these discoveries wash over Mary without clunky exposition or ham-handed insights. Instead, Scanlan’s silent expressions portray the compounding anguish Mary must navigate as she processes both the loss of her husband and the realization that their marriage was built on a lie.

Further complicating Mary’s pain is the understanding that she reinvented herself for the man she loved. Having converted to Islam, she wears a headscarf, cooks an immaculate saag and speaks fluent Urdu. (“I learned because I wanted to know what his family was saying about me,” she cheekily tells Solomon.) Although Ahmed was everything to the childless Mary, she must accept that the answers for his betrayal died with him. The notion of the world crumbling around her even manifests itself literally, as Mary witnesses the chalk cliffs of Dover collapsing into the sea and the ceiling at Geneviève’s home starting to crack. All the while, Chris Roe’s haunting score accentuates the emotion.

Thankfully, there are no easy villains in Khan’s contemplative study of the human condition. Richard plays Geneviève with the tortured soul of a woman wracked with guilt, and Ariss adds layers to Solomon’s moody persona. But the desire to steer Mary, Geneviève and Solomon toward a shared catharsis leads to the film’s one significant misstep, as Khan crafts a quick conclusion that feels grandiose for such a subdued story.

Considering its lean running time, “After Love” might have benefited from a deeper deconstruction of its characters’ psychology. That quibble, however, speaks to the shattering impact of Khan’s storytelling: Only a truly affecting film about grief would leave a viewer wishing it weren’t over so soon.

Unrated. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Pop-up. In English, Arabic, French and Urdu with subtitles. 89 minutes.