After Love review: one of the standout films of the year so far

By Leaf Arbuthnot

Joanna Scanlan as Mary in AFTER LOVE

How to rebuild after love? How to decide who to become, following a loss so fundamental that all coordinates seem thrown in the air? These and other difficult questions are explored in Aleen Khan’s magnificent first film, set between Dover and Calais. Joanna Scanlan, best known as the hopeless press officer Terri Coverley in The Thick of It , plays Mary, a white woman who falls in love at 14 with a Pakistani-born schoolfriend. Years later, she converts to Islam for Ahmed, learns Urdu and begins wearing a veil: acts of devotion to a man she has elected to sacrifice everything for. But at the start of the film, Ahmed dies, leaving Mary at sea, almost literally: she and Ahmed built their life together in a comfortable house by the cliffs of Dover, which threaten to crumble to chalk at any moment.

At first it seems the film will be a fairly conventional examination of life after loss, as the title promises. But soon Mary unearths something shattering as she is sorting through the rubble of Ahmed’s belongings: texts on his phone from a woman he clearly loved. An ID card bearing an address in France sends her across the Channel to confront her late husband’s alluring mistress, Genevieve (Natalie Richard). But in Calais, on a street as sunny as Dover is dour, the confrontation between the two ‘other’ women scatters into an exchange that's less easily categorised. Genevieve assumes in a cheerfully prejudiced way that this headscarfed woman is her latest cleaner, so she invites her into the house, and Mary, being British and grief-stricken, cannot bring herself to clarify the situation. Gradually, they become one another’s confidantes, and the film becomes almost unbearable: it’s clear that the misunderstanding underpinning the women’s relationship will have to untangle, but when?

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The film isn’t so much a study of what happens after love, but an invitation to consider the different kinds of love that can flower in the unlikeliest places. Mary and Genevieve seem opposites - Mary is self-effacing, squidgily maternal, while Genevieve is looser and more fiery - but really the two women are alike: both have made swingeing compromises for love. While the bones of the plot are conventional - triangulated love, microscoped yet again - the quality of the filmmaking and the subtlety of the screenplay stop it from slackening to soap opera. Scanlan is mesmerising as a meek but dangerous woman who has been ‘humiliated’, she accuses the woman who cuckolded her, multiple times. While Ahmed might have been more thoughtfully fleshed out - photos and family videos never quite nail the character - the story is really about kinship and the extraordinary resilience that can draw women together and hold them fast.

FIVE STARS After Love is released on 4 June in cinemas.

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/after-love-review-joanna-scanlan-aleem-khan-british-widow-affair-islam-11674167417

‘After Love’ Review: A Widow’s Disturbing Discovery

A british woman learns her recently deceased husband led another life across the english channel in this poignant film from writer-director aleem khan.

Jan. 19, 2023 5:31 pm ET

image

An image of the white cliffs of Dover shearing off and crumbling into dust provides a stark metaphor for what’s going on inside a suddenly widowed woman’s psyche in “After Love,” a poignant British film about a seemingly solid marriage that turns out to be something else entirely.

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Mary (played tenderly by Joanna Scanlan ) is a white British woman who converted to Islam after falling in love as a teen with a Pakistani-British Muslim named Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). The two have a long and comfortable life together by the southeast coast of Britain, which is convenient for Ahmed because he’s on the crew of the cross-channel ferry to France. The couple call each other “Love,” hence the somewhat forced double-entendre that is the movie’s title.

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Culture | Film

After Love film review: A brilliant debut feature anchored by Joanna Scanlan’s stunning turn

after love movie review guardian

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.

after love movie review guardian

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

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‘after love’ review: joanna scanlan shines as a grieving widow in a sensitive debut feature.

Aleem Khan's British-French drama is taking its North American bow in limited release.

By Leslie Felperin

Leslie Felperin

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An opening scene — unfurled in one long-held, static, elegantly framed shot — looks on as Fatima (Scanlan) returns home to her house in Dover, on the coast of England, after an evening out with her ferry captain husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia, seen only in this sequence, although his voice echoes through the film). She is clearly ethnically white, but Fatima is clad in a headscarf and the shalwar kameez ensemble that’s traditional among Pakistani women, and she chats with Ahmed in a mix of English and Urdu. When their conversation between rooms comes to an abrupt halt, she goes to investigate why he’s stopped talking, and the ensuing silence is held for a beat long enough to suggest the worst has happened. A cut transfers us to a different room in the house, sometime later, where a tear-free Fatima sits stoically in funereal white, surrounded by wailing relatives.

Taking a ferry on the same line her husband worked for, Fatima sails across the English Channel to Calais and tracks down Genevieve, a svelte blond whose physicality differs significantly from Fatima’s shape. When Genevieve immediately assumes that Fatima is the cleaner she booked from an agency to help her get her house in order before she moves, Fatima goes along with this mistake instead of correcting it. Introducing herself as Mary (her original name before she converted), she uses the mix-up as an opportunity to learn about the woman Ahmed had been seeing secretly for years.

Further surprises are in store when Fatima/Mary learns that Genevieve and Ahmed have a son, a teenager named Solomon (Talid Ariss) whose raging hormones and anger at his missing father have been redirected toward his mother, who doesn’t realize Ahmed is dead or that he had a wife in England. It turns out Genevieve always knew Ahmed was married to someone named Fatima, but she thought her rival was Pakistani, and of course she has no idea that he’s died.

The film’s endgame is perhaps a little too tidy but remains satisfying all the same, thanks in part to the finely harmonized performances between the three leads and the neatness of Khan’s writing, which finds a way to allow Ahmed to literally add his voice, via recorded messages. Chris Roe’s aching, plaintive score extends the film’s emotional palette without swamping it in syrup, while the lensing by DP Alexander Dynan adds a welcome warmth even when the characters are in the darkest, coldest of places.

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after love movie review guardian

Intimate drama has language, infidelity, partial nudity.

After Love film poster

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

Encourages empathy toward others, rather than look

Mary is shown to be kind and thoughtful, particula

Main character Mary and many supporting characters

A character dies suddenly just out of shot, portra

A character is seen in their underwear in front of

Occasional language includes "f--k," "f---ing," "b

Main characters smoke cigarettes on occasion. Alco

Parents need to know that After Love is an award-winning intimate British drama with occasional strong language, some nudity, and themes around adultery. The movie stars Joanna Scanlan -- who won a BAFTA for Best Actress -- as Mary, a woman who discovers her late husband had a secret life. The death of Mary's…

Positive Messages

Encourages empathy toward others, rather than looking at situations from a binary perspective and making snap judgments. Honesty can bring people closer, even when it is difficult to hear. Courage is shown when seeking the truth. Infidelity and lying -- and the consequences of both -- are prominent.

Positive Role Models

Mary is shown to be kind and thoughtful, particularly in dealing with her late husband's son, though she loses her temper, slaps him on one occasion. She maintains a lie about her identity in order to snoop around Genevieve's home and is initially judgmental of her behavior. Genevieve makes assumptions about Mary based on her appearance, mistaking her for a cleaner. She lies to her son about aspects of her relationship with his father, but does so in order to protect him. Both women manage to overcome their anger to see each other as humans experiencing their own pain.

Diverse Representations

Main character Mary and many supporting characters are Muslim. Prayers and religious gatherings are shown, and Muslim community is portrayed as supportive, though Mary is often on the outskirts as the only White woman (she converted for her marriage). Her husband's family are of Pakistani descent. A White character asks how it feels "taking all that on," referring to Mary's conversion as though she presumes it to be a burden or sacrifice. Her husband's teenage son is in a same-sex relationship, which is shown positively as sweet and kind -- though a secret from his mother -- and Mary's reaction is accepting when she finds out. Mary has a larger body shape that she explores on-screen in the mirror after meeting her late husband's slimmer girlfriend. It is never referenced by others negatively.

Did we miss something on diversity? Suggest an update.

Violence & Scariness

A character dies suddenly just out of shot, portrayed through their spouse's reaction. Mourning gatherings are shown and visits to a graveyard. A character lies down on a beach with waves lapping and, at one point, submerging them. An adult slaps a teen for spitting in another's face.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

Sex, Romance & Nudity

A character is seen in their underwear in front of a mirror. Later they are seen in the bath naked from the waist up -- breast partially seen from side. Character also seen in the shower, though through glass doors that obscure the body. Two teens are heard kissing off-screen, then seen shirtless kissing on a bed. Frequent reference to infidelity.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.

Occasional language includes "f--k," "f---ing," "bitch," "bastard," "crap," and "pr--k."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Main characters smoke cigarettes on occasion. Alcohol is consumed in small amounts, including a teen drinking wine with dinner in France, where the law allows drinking from the age of 16 in a family setting.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that After Love is an award-winning intimate British drama with occasional strong language, some nudity, and themes around adultery. The movie stars Joanna Scanlan -- who won a BAFTA for Best Actress -- as Mary, a woman who discovers her late husband had a secret life. The death of Mary's husband, Ahmed ( Nasser Memarzia ), is seen just out of shot, and there are scenes of mourning ceremonies and graveyard visits. Dialogue is in English as well as Urdu, Arabic, and French with English subtitles. Mary is Muslim, having converted to the faith following her marriage. The supporting cast are also primarily Muslim, with religious gatherings and prayer depicted. There is partial nudity, kissing on a bed, and frequent reference to infidelity. Occasional strong language includes "f--k" and "bitch." Characters are also shown to smoke cigarettes and drink small quantities of alcohol -- including a teen in a family setting. The film deals with complex and upsetting adult issues, which may be confusing or too intense for younger viewers. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .

Where to Watch

Videos and photos.

After Love: Close-up of Joanna Scanlan as Mary.

Community Reviews

  • Parents say (1)

Based on 1 parent review

After Love – Overly Extended With Suss Scenes

What's the story.

In AFTER LOVE, Mary ( Joanna Scanlan ) discovers that her recently deceased husband, Ahmed ( Nasser Memarzia ), had a secret life. She sets off from Dover to Calais in search of the truth. There she meets Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and her son, Solomon (Talid Ariss), who lead her to question everything she knew about her marriage and her own identity in turn.

Is It Any Good?

Writer-director Aleem Khan's debut feature film is a confidently handled and highly original drama that rightly earned him three BAFTA nominations. After Love 's lead actor, however, went one better, with Scanlan winning the Best Actress award for her portrayal of Mary. Scanlan, best known for her characters in British comedy dramas such as The Thick of It , gives a mesmerizing performance from start to finish as a woman whose world falls apart around her after the sudden death of her husband. Khan's assured direction allows for a stillness and silence that makes space for the actor to really hold the screen. Every breath and flick of the eye is saturated with emotion, building up a tension that almost surpasses the plot altogether.

Moments of rawness and connection take on symbolic beauty, such as Mary partly submerged beneath the lapping tide on the beach, letting both the water and her feelings wash over her; the two "wronged" women lying next to each other on a bed, mirroring two sides of an experience; or characters looking over a cliff's edge, contemplating the future. It's beautiful, impactful stuff that makes Khan one to watch closely over the coming years and will hopefully lead to broader opportunities for Scanlan to explore her remarkable talent.

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about the theme of identity in After Love . How did various revelations cause characters to reconsider their understandings of others as well as themselves?

How was Islam portrayed in the movie? What did the film show of Mary's experience of her religion? Why is representation in media important?

How did the characters' development of empathy toward each other help them move forward with their own grief and pain? Can you think of a time when you've shown empathy toward someone or something?

Talk about the strong language in the film. Did it seem necessary, or excessive? What did it contribute to the movie?

Movie Details

  • In theaters : January 20, 2023
  • On DVD or streaming : February 24, 2023
  • Cast : Joanna Scanlan , Nathalie Richard , Talid Ariss
  • Director : Aleem Khan
  • Inclusion Information : Female actors
  • Studio : British Film Institute
  • Genre : Drama
  • Character Strengths : Courage , Empathy
  • Run time : 89 minutes
  • MPAA rating : NR
  • Award : BAFTA
  • Last updated : February 25, 2023

Did we miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.

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2020, Drama, 1h 29m

What to know

Critics Consensus

After Love marks an impressively nuanced feature debut for writer-director Aleem Khan -- and a brilliant showcase for Joanna Scanlan's dramatic chops. Read critic reviews

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After love videos, after love   photos.

Set in the port town of Dover, Mary Hussain suddenly finds herself a widow following the unexpected death of her husband. A day after the burial, she discovers he has a secret just twenty-one miles across the English Channel in Calais.

Genre: Drama

Original Language: English

Director: Aleem Khan

Producer: Matthieu de Braconier

Writer: Aleem Khan

Release Date (Theaters): Jan 20, 2023  limited

Release Date (Streaming): Feb 24, 2023

Runtime: 1h 29m

Distributor: Vertigo Releasing / Ahoy Associates Entertainment

Production Co: The Bureau, British Film Institute, BBC Films

Cast & Crew

Joanna Scanlan

Mary Hussain

Nathalie Richard

Talid Ariss

Nasser Memarzia

Sudha Bhuchar

Nisha Chadha

Jabeen Butt

Subika Anwar-Khan

Elijah Braik

Screenwriter

Matthieu de Braconier

Vincent Gadelle

Executive Producer

Rose Garnett

Natascha Wharton

Alexander Dynan

Cinematographer

Gareth C. Scales

Film Editing

Original Music

Sarah Jenneson

Production Design

Shaheen Baig

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After Love grieves for a house divided by the English Channel

Love and loss surface in Dover and Calais in Aleem Khan’s feature debut, a sympathetic portrait of a widow left reeling by discovery of her husband’s secret life.

2 June 2021

By  Pamela Hutchinson

Sight and Sound

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► Af ter Love is in cinemas.

Aleem Khan’s debut feature After Love scrutinises bereavement as a mental health disorder, diving into not just the sorrow but the derangement of grief. As newly widowed Mary, Joanna Scanlan offers a portrait of a woman whose cracked heart wins our sympathy, as she absentmindedly makes tea for two in a hotel room or bursts into tears on her prayer mat, and whose increasingly stealthy behaviour commands our attention as she infiltrates another’s woman’s life. She’s compellingly broken. In Scanlan’s features we see grief and humiliation twisted into possessiveness, vengefulness and misplaced compassion, as she plays simultaneously the wronged wife and a cuckoo in somebody else’s nest.

Mary and her ferry-captain husband Ahmed are leading the peaceful life of a middle-aged Muslim couple in Dover, supported by a shared faith and a community, when he dies suddenly. Emptying his wallet after the funeral, Mary finds an ID card belonging to a French woman, Genevieve, and then loving messages on his phone from ‘G’. It’s a soap opera set-up, but in the hands of writer-director Khan, After Love becomes something weightier.

Not just bereaved but betrayed, Mary senses that her world is crumbling – Khan literalises this with discreet special effects: the white cliffs of Dover seem to crash into the English Channel, a ceiling cracks open. These are visions, but in the next scene Mary brushes dust from her shoulder.

after love movie review guardian

Those cliffs, which feature prominently in the film as the spot where Mary would watch for Ahmed’s return and now waits for something else, take a place in a lineage of stories about mourning women waiting for their men to return from the sea. Much here feels as robust and longstanding as those cliffs. Even scenes played out via SMS have their heft – in this film, technology is fragile but useful, inasmuch as it carries and revives precious memories, from the audio tapes Ahmed posted from Pakistan, to home movies on VHS and the voicemail Mary listens to obsessively.

In the end, it’s a phone that will betray her deceit, but a granite headstone in the soil that reveals her real secret. Mary and Ahmed’s marriage was decades long, and his affair with Genevieve was no fling. Mary and Ahmed began their relationship as teenagers, in secrecy, in the face of cultural prejudice, and that story is about to play out again in the next generation. There is history here, and loss (a dead child, an absent father, an estranged family), as well as a gaping cultural divide.

Mary dresses modestly and wears a headscarf – she converted to Islam to be with Ahmed. She also speaks Urdu and cooks Pakistani food. Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) does none of those things. She is also a modern single working mother, and wears trousers and ruffled, highlighted hair. When we first see her it’s a shock, but she’s the one who judges by appearances. Mary is poised on her doorstep to confront her over the affair, but Genevieve flexes her own prejudice and takes her for a house cleaner.

When Mary accepts the offer to enter Genevieve’s home under these false pretences, the film grows an outer skin of intrigue. Later, when Genevieve, unaware of her cleaner’s real identity, gestures at her scarf and asks about her faith, Mary’s response is poisonous: “I did something for my husband that no one else could.” Unknowingly, the women have fallen into complementary roles – complementarily subservient to Ahmed’s needs, that is. There’s a shadow of Mary’s logic in Genevieve’s later statement: “Being with me has made him into a better husband for someone else.”

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Richard and Talid Ariss, who plays Genevieve’s son Solomon, lend Scanlan impeccable support in roles that call for more thundering histrionics. However, this is Scanlan’s film, and her performance is disarmingly sophisticated. Although she is perhaps known mostly for television comedy, her best roles involve a virtuoso mix of tones, from her exasperated civil servant in Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick of It (2005-12) to her put-upon ward sister in BBC4 ’s geriatric ward-set Getting On (2009-12).

In this film, as in, say, Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion (2017), Scanlan again fully inhabits a complex role. It takes an actress of a high calibre to express so much, and there’s a tangible pleasure to be taken in observing her performance. Much of her best acting is done alone, halting in the middle of her prayers, reconstructing her identity as she rehearses a speech in the mirror, breathing in her husband’s scent on another woman’s laundry or laying down in the shallows on Calais beach and allowing the tides to mingle with her tears.

Khan’s filmmaking is as fastidious and as deceptively restrained as his heroine. Ahmed dies in the background of a long shot, and the slow zoom in towards his body is mirrored by a subsequent shot of the funeral gathering. The film is balanced in time and place too, bookended by two baptisms and taking place in towns that echo each other in location and industry. The physical gulf that separates the women is a body of water that has two names in two languages, much like Mary, whose Muslim name is Fahima, and Ahmed, whom she calls Ed.

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Khan and DP Alexander Dynan (who worked on Paul Schrader’s similarly austere and grief-stricken First Reformed , 2017) frequently return to the cliff edge, the chilly waters, to stress this divide. There’s a sense of liminality, with both woman existing on the verge of something whole – sharing scraps of a home, a husband and a father.

Chris Roe’s score appears intermittently throughout the film but when it vanishes, perhaps Khan intends us to feel its absence, a reflection of the emptiness created by secrets and affections withheld, confessions left unmade. The music swells to suggest a harmonious future at the film’s end, but is swiftly replaced by the sound of waves crashing and gulls squawking as the credits roll. Ahmed and his mysterious motivations are lost in the deep, while above ground two women look for a new kind of home.

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Set in the port town of Dover, Mary Hussain suddenly finds herself a widow following the unexpected death of her husband. A day after the burial, she discovers he has a secret just twenty-on... Read all Set in the port town of Dover, Mary Hussain suddenly finds herself a widow following the unexpected death of her husband. A day after the burial, she discovers he has a secret just twenty-one miles across the English Channel in Calais. Set in the port town of Dover, Mary Hussain suddenly finds herself a widow following the unexpected death of her husband. A day after the burial, she discovers he has a secret just twenty-one miles across the English Channel in Calais.

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  • Trivia The film received its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and had a theatrical release in the United Kingdom on 4 June 2021. The film received positive reviews from critics, with praise for Khan's direction and Scanlan's performance. Both were nominated at the 75th BAFTA awards, with Scanlan winning for best actress.

Geneviève : Who do you think you are? Don't you ever touch my son.

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  • Mar 14, 2022
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‘Love After Love’ Review: Elegance Without a Center

Ann Hui’s World War II-era film is lovely to look at but lacks emotional depth and resonance.

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By Claire Shaffer

Early on in “Love After Love,” the director Ann Hui introduces the viewer to an astonishing shade of green, an emerald lushness that radiates from the foliage surrounding a Hong Kong mansion on the eve of World War II. If only the rest of the overlong feature were so memorable.

“Love After Love” is Hui’s 30th film, and an adaptation of a short story by the novelist Eileen Chang, whose fiction she has now used in three films. Hui, who rose to prominence as a director of the Hong Kong New Wave in the 1980s, has been less well-known in the West.

This film is a sufficient showcase for Hui’s craftsmanship, but it lacks the emotional depth or resonance that its composed visuals, lofty setting, and melodramatic stakes would portend.

The film, streaming now on Mubi, shows sympathy for its young protagonist Ge Weilong (Sandra Ma), who comes from Shanghai to live and work for her cold, aristocratic Aunt Liang (Faye Yu) in Hong Kong while pursuing an education. Attending the banquets and high-society functions of Hong Kong’s international upper class, her aunt’s social circle, Weilong unwittingly finds herself under the gaze of George (Eddie Peng), a former lover of her aunt’s with an outsize Don Juan persona.

What could make for a captivating story involving a transgressive love triangle is, even on a micro level, ineffective. Interactions between characters feel hollow, no matter how well-lit or well-cast the scenes are, with a passionless non-ending that has little of substance to say about the period or its social morés. Nevertheless, the bright spots in “Love After Love” may encourage viewers to seek out more robust works in Hui’s cherished oeuvre.

Love After Love Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 24 minutes. Watch on Mubi.

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Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud review – flashes of pure truth

The family setup comes at a price for a widow, her son and her lodger who is gay in this tender novel set in Trinidad

I ngrid Persaud won both the 2017 Commonwealth short story prize and the 2018 BBC National short story award with “ The Sweet Sop ”, a story about a son who supplies chocolate to his estranged dying father. This novel is her highly anticipated follow-up: the story of Trinidadian Betty Ramdin, who has suffered for years at the hands of her husband, an abusive drunk who “only gave love you could feel. He cuff you down? Honeymoon. He give you a black eye? True love in your tail.” Widowhood is Betty’s respite. Following her husband’s death she takes in a lodger, Mr Chetan, a profoundly decent man who becomes Betty’s best friend as well as a father figure to her young son, Solo. They settle into a platonic partnership – cooking, gardening and raising Solo – creating a family as an antidote to their own unyielding loneliness.

Persaud has a knack for finding the sublime in the ordinary: in her hands the quotidian details of even apparently “small” lives lead to flashes of pure truth. The story is recounted through a series of tender, amusing vignettes, with Betty, Chetan and Solo taking turns at the narration. “You should see Mr Chetan and Solo,” Betty says early on, “happy as pappy and I’m like a Wednesday in the middle.” As with “The Sweet Sop”, the language is colloquial, with both narrative and dialogue soaked in an ear-catching Trinidadian dialect. The prose is playful and rhythmic, seeming to beat its own drum, so that at times you don’t read the novel so much as hear it. You sit in its company while it takes you into its confidence.

Persaud plays with time as well as language, sometimes flitting over years in one paragraph, sometimes lingering forensically on a single episode. This feels slightly dizzying to begin with, but serves to draw us into a deeper intimacy with the characters, as if we have indeed born witness to a large span of their lives. When one evening Betty and Chetan are overheard by Solo spilling their deepest secrets to each other over glasses of rum, we feel a deep cut of grief at the way the revelations shatter their slapdash little family, causing Solo to flee to New York, where they “think all brown and black people make one way – thief, murderer, rapist or terrorist”. There he is an illegal immigrant caught in a web of black-market fraudsters in his hunt for a fake social security number. Betty is left to grapple with a long, bitter estrangement from her son, even as she’s tormented by the after-effects of an abusive marriage.

Meanwhile, Chetan, driven by the realisation that “Miss B and I needed to be free to meet other people otherwise it was like we were in a sexless marriage”, becomes distracted by yearning for his first love Mani, with whom he reconnects via social media only to be envious of the contentment he’s found with his husband. It’s our unfolding awareness of the unyielding direction of Chetan’s desires – jolting him into “3am awakenings” and filling him with “fear, anticipation and horniness” – that sinks in deep. A raw, achingly sensual encounter with a stranger in a public toilet leaves him reeling, and the reader with him. “If things were different,” he says, “I would have thanked him for making me feel unbroken, unmarked.” This is one of the novel’s most moving scenes, striking a tonal balance that seems almost alchemical. In “The Sweet Sop” it was the balance of “anger and humour and love” that earned accolades from the National short story award judges. Here, Persaud achieves another impeccable calibration: the contentment of Chetan’s happy domestic life with Betty chafing against his acute loneliness as a gay man in a community where “simply being me is illegal, immoral and perverted”.

One of the reasons Love After Love is so delightful is that it reads like a modern meditation on the different kinds of love as catalogued by the ancient Greeks, crossed with the characters’ deliciously gossipy self-reflection. Persaud gives us a captivating interrogation of love in all its forms, how it heals and how it harms, the twists and torments of obsession ( mania ), sex and romance ( eros ), family ( storge ), friendship ( philia ), acceptance or rejection by the community, and so on. But much like the Derek Walcott poem from which it takes its title, the novel is ultimately concerned with the possibilities of that elated and oddly elegiac moment when we finally come to love ourselves.

Sara Collins’s The Confessions of Frannie Langton is published by Penguin. Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud is published by Faber (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com .

This article was amended on 6 January 2021. An image of Trinidad, in Cuba, was replaced with an image of San Fernando, in Trinidad and Tobago.

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Review: Divorce, French-style, in the gripping domestic drama ‘After Love’

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Like most divorcing couples, the duo at the center of Joachim Lafosse’s “After Love” are in a kind of limbo. But for Marie and Boris, played to riveting perfection by Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn, that state of emotional in-between is intensified by a particular set of financial circumstances: Until they agree on a monetary settlement for his share of their apartment, he can’t afford to move out.

And so the sunny home where they’ve been raising their daughters, and where almost all of the story unfolds, is not just the setting for a protracted conflict but, in certain ways, its essence. It embodies their class differences, which have taken on a labor vs. capital dynamic: Marie, an academic, was “born rich,” as Boris, a contractor with a perpetual cash-flow problem, likes to point out.

He insists, not unreasonably, that the renovations he did on the place that she bought (with help from her family) entitle him to half its value. Marie has reasonable expectations too — for starters, she’d like him to keep his day-to-day promises to their girls. But she can look spiteful when she tries to prevent her conciliation-minded mother (Marthe Keller) from hiring Boris to work on a house. She can barely remember what she ever adored about him.

And yet, even as these two cautiously navigate spaces they once shared — he’s relegated to a cramped corner room and has been assigned a separate shelf in the refrigerator — this keenly observed domestic drama is ever alert to the love that once bound them, just as their 8-year-old twins, delightfully played by Jade and Margaux Soentjens, take stock of every gesture and silence between them.

It’s in the characters’ gestures and glances that the movie’s action lies. Belgian director Lafosse, who scripted the story with three other writers — Mazarine Pingeo, Fanny Burdino and Thomas Van Zuylen — and further developed it through improvisation with the actors, is more interested in the moment-to-moment temperature shifts between Marie and Boris than in conventional plot points. Little “happens,” and when a late-in-the-proceedings emergency arises, it’s an unconvincing concession to capital-D drama.

By contrast, a simple dinner-party scene involving Marie, her invited friends and the unwanted Boris is a spectacular tour de force of passive aggressions and squirming discomfort, with a center-stage Kahn (a filmmaker and occasional actor) fearless in his truculence and vulnerability.

Bejo, best known stateside for her performance as the aptly named Peppy in “The Artist,” works here in a minor key to eloquent effect. She wields Marie’s constant anger as a self-protective shield and, in the rare moments when the hardened surface shatters, she taps into a deep well of sorrowful regret. In the role of the more loose-limbed and gregarious Boris, Kahn is a fascinating, ever-shifting composite of hope, delusion and wounded pride.

For American audiences, who generally don’t like to acknowledge the fiscal aspect of marriage — the prevalence of prenups and alimony notwithstanding — “After Love” is probably a more palatable title than the original, “L’Economie du Couple” (“The Couple’s Economy”). But if there’s something clinical about the French title, it also captures the idea of a marriage as a self-contained world.

In features that include “Private Property,” “Our Children” and “The White Knights,” Lafosse has explored the idea of the enclosed environments we create, within professions as well as families. Cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens, a frequent collaborator, moves fluidly through the rooms of Boris and Marie’s apartment as they and their girls reconfigure its spaces and try to imagine what lies ahead for them, outside those walls.

Though it doesn’t have quite the same sustained intensity, “After Love” often recalls “Shoot the Moon,” the great divorce drama starring Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. Messy and ungovernable at its strongest, Lafosse’s film is a story of heartbreak and real estate and, not least, money, viewed from within the still-smoldering ruins.

-------------

‘After Love’

In French with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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We all know what the Hallmark Movie Channel version of this story looks like. A middle-aged woman with two grown sons lovingly cares for her husband in his last days and mourns his loss. Then, after a couple of awkward, conflicted attempts, she begins to open her heart to a new romance, and we all have our hearts warmed by the resilience of the human spirit and the reassuring notion that there is love after loss. We know what the Lifetime version would look like, too. A beautiful, plucky widow finds that her adult sons pose a threat to her chance to find new love. 

Both versions of that story are TV-movie perennials. But “Love After Love” is different. This first-time feature from writer/director Russell Harbaugh has an understated, intimate, pointillist style, with a cool jazz score that matches its improvisational tone. The structure is offbeat in the most literal sense, showing us the small moments in between the usual movie scenes and trusting us to understand their significance without explanations. Most movies go for clarity by heightening the drama, with one emotion on screen at a time as though delivered by semaphore. In this movie, things are always a little messy, a bit smudged around the edges. Like life.

We first see Suzanne (a radiant Andie MacDowell ), perched on a window seat, talking to her son Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) about happiness. She tells him that her sons make her happy, and cheekily adds, “and your dad’s pretty good in bed, too.” Then they go outdoors to join one of several gatherings of friends and family we will see throughout the film.

Suzanne’s husband gets up to recite a poem. His raspy voice and the cigarette in his hand hint that he will not be around long, and by the next scene he is in bed, close to unconscious, with a harrowing extended death rattle. Suzanne cares for him devotedly. Nicholas and her other son, Chris ( James Adomian ), are there to help but both are a bit lost. “He doesn’t want us here—this is embarrassing,” one of them says, as they help their father to the bathroom.

And then he is gone. After the heart-wrenching sound of his labored breathing, the clanking of the gurney is unbearably mundane and mechanical as they take him away.

We then get a series of glimpses, mostly moments that seem insignificant, at least to the characters, as they try to manage their grief. Chris gets drunk at another family gathering and he talks about losing his dad in a stand-up routine. Nicholas tries to lose himself through women, breaking up with one, getting engaged to another, making an oafish play for a third and trying to reconnect with a fourth. Suzanne snaps at one of her colleagues, than apologizes, laughing a little because she knows it is about her feeling out of control.

And then there is another gathering, back at Suzanne’s home, with two new people at the table. Nicholas makes a toast, poorly disguising his hostility. “To Michael and to this special thing that’s happening right before our eyes even though we’re desperately trying not to notice it is, and I think that it’s right that we try to celebrate that.” The newcomer responds with more grace. “I thank you for welcoming me here, however you have, it can’t have been easy.”

It isn’t easy, and it quickly gets even harder. As miserable as grief is, it somehow feels safer than letting it go. Chris admits. “It’s almost worse how easy it is to get over grief.”

MacDowell is a wonder here, her exquisite face utterly open to all of Suzanne’s experiences and emotions. Suzanne understands that she can love her sons without always respecting their choices, and she can care about their happiness without giving up what she wants just to demonstrate what they think is the right way to grieve. And we understand that the gift of the film is seeing MacDowell give Suzanne and her story the grace and depth they deserve.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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Love After Love (2018)

Andie MacDowell as Suzanne

Chris O'Dowd as Nicholas

Francesca Faridany as Karen

James Adomian as Chris

Seth Barrish as Scott

  • Russell Harbaugh
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  • Chris Teague
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‘Love After Love’ Review: Ann Hui’s Pretty, Empty Melodrama Set in Pre-War Hong Kong

Ann Hui's third Eileen Chang adaptation is a beautifully mounted 1930s Hong Kong love story with little on its mind and less in its heart.

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Love After Love

Once more with rather less feeling: after “Love in a Fallen City” and “Eighteen Springs,” acclaimed Hong Kong director Ann Hui returns to the work of celebrated 20th century author Eileen Chang with “ Love After Love ,” a not-at-all-short adaptation of a Chang short story laboring under the English title “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier.” Hui has assembled something of an all-star lineup, with the young leads played by rising actors Sandra Ma (“Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings,” “The Shadow Play”) and Eddie Peng (“Operation Mekong,” “Hidden Man”), the legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto on scoring duties and DP Christopher Doyle returning to the scene, if not quite the time period, of his greatest Wong Kar-wai collaboration, “In the Mood For Love.” Despite all this promise, third time sadly represents a marked drop-off in charm: “Love After Love” goes through the motions of classic, rousing melodrama but not the emotions.

Tracking the very gentle wising-up of a naive, wide-eyed ingenue over the course of a few eventful pre-war years, the film begins as Weilong (Ma), a Shanghainese student come to Hong Kong to finish her education away from her stifling father’s influence, arrives at the gates of a palatial villa. She is met by two pert housemaids Didi (Karlina Zhang) and Ni’er (Ning Chang), but it belongs to Madame Liang (Faye Yu), her father’s sister who was excommunicated from the family when she chose to become the mistress of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman rather than marry the man her family chose for her. Having inherited all his wealth, she lives a decadent life of supremely well-dressed un-respectability, as indicated when we’re introduced to her rocking a black satin number and waist-length veil as she’s driven home from an assignation in a shiny convertible by much younger playboy George Chiao (Peng).

Madame Liang is not exactly a warm, motherly figure, and there’s something discomfiting in the way her older friend “Uncle” Situ (Fan Wei) looks at Weilong. But half scandalized and half seduced by this new lifestyle, Weilong moves in and tries to adapt herself to her worldly aunt’s approval. “We do things the British way here,” announces Madame Liang with some pride. Her “set,” is indeed a variegated bunch, including George and his minxish sister Kitty (a nice, if underserved turn from Isabella Leong), their rich, disapproving father Sir Cheng (Paul Chun), along with Uncle Situ and a wider circle of British Army officers, missionaries, glamor girls and other members of the champagne-quaffing, polyglot Hong Kong elite.

It does not take long for Weilong to ditch her plain overdress for the silk cheongsams and floaty Western-style party gowns that now hang in her closet. When she attracts a handsome young medical-student beau, Mme Liang makes moves on him immediately and, with George starting to flirt in earnest with the impressionable Weilong, there’s an enjoyable sort of “Dangerous Liaisons” vibe initially. Certainly her aunt’s chastisement when Weilong reacts badly to Uncle Situ snapping a jeweled bracelet round her wrist like a handcuff, suggests Mme Liang is somehow mentoring her in the fine arts of courtesanship.

But Mme Liang, a character made up of two parts side-eye and one part cigarette smoke, is no Marquise de Merteuil, and while she seems to constantly be plotting something devious, not a lot ever comes of it — she is a Machievellian schemer without a scheme. Instead of the lathery, bed-hopping drama initially promised, the vast majority of the film is taken up with blank-slate Weilong’s increasing passion for the feckless, promiscuous George and her attempts to get him to put a ring on it.

This not-terribly-involving love story between two characters for whom it’s difficult to give a hoot, unfolds against a curiously texture-free backdrop, given the fascinating milieu of 1930s Hong Kong. It is possible, as we’re reminded by the prominent “Dragon Seal” of Chinese censorship approval affixed to the film’s titles, that sensitivities around Hong Kong’s status necessitated some selective editing, yet the draggy 140-minute run time, if anything, suggests that too much was left in, rather than a great deal taken out.

It is largely left to the craft departments to give the film what dynamism it has. Doyle’s photography delights in the richness of the palette and is effusive in its love for the pearly flawless skin of uniformly attractive cast. And Sakamoto’s music, while not particularly memorable, pleasantly embellishes the romance with light piano motifs. But tying for MVP, it’s probably costumier Emi Wada (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) and production designer Zhao Hai. The outfits are glorious. Indeedm it’s often by Weilong’s donning of a neat beret or the shimmer of her form-fitting dress that we glean character information that is not really communicated elsewhere.

And the interiors, especially of Mme Liang’s mansion, are similarly exquisitely dressed. In these richly furnished parlors, tricked out with peacock feather drapes and ornate trinketry, and in the lavish but slavishly Western-pandering dinner and garden parties, the film comes closest to emulating the arch, Austen-esque social observations of Chang’s original story, which contains aperçus like: “The English come from so far to see China — one has to give them something of China to see. But this was China as Westerners imagine it: exquisite, illogical, very entertaining.” Change “very” to “intermittently” in that last phrase and you have a fairly good summation of “Love After Love.”

Reviewed in Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition), Sept. 8, 2020. Running time: 140 MIN. (Original title: "Di Yi Lu Xiang")  

  • Production: (China) An Alibaba Pictures, Hehe Pictures, Blue Bird Films production. (Int'l sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam). Producer: Danny Liu. Co-producers: Jerry Li, Yang Wei.
  • Crew: Director: Ann Hui. Screenplay: Wang Anyi, based on the short story "Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier" by Eileen Chang. Camera: Christopher Doyle. Editor: Mary Stephen. Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto.
  • With: Sandra Ma, Eddie Peng, Faye Yu, Ning Chang, Fan Wei, Isabella Leong, Paul Chun. (Mandarin dialogue)

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COMMENTS

  1. After Love review

    Sun 30 Oct 2016 02.59 EDT T he frayed edges of a failed marriage are the backdrop to this acutely observed but wrenching drama.

  2. After Love director Aleem Khan: 'I walked around Mecca ...

    "It's a deeply political film for me, but the politics in the film are quite quiet," says Khan. "It feels like my whole life is in this film, even though the story isn't a biography of my own life."

  3. Bejo and Kahn prove that breaking up is hard to do

    After Love review - Bejo and Kahn prove that breaking up is hard to do Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn star in a painfully intimate, horribly fascinating drama about the emotional and financial...

  4. 'After Love' Review: The Other Woman

    'The Color Purple' When you purchase a ticket for an independently reviewed film through our site, we earn an affiliate commission. "After Love," the first feature by the director Aleem Khan,...

  5. After Love movie review & film summary (2023)

    Genevieve and Ahmed were not married. She never met his family. But she is the mother of his son, Solomon ( Talid Ariss ). Mary's resentment of her rival melts away when she has a chance to glimpse Ahmed in the boy who blames his mother for his father's absence. Advertisement

  6. After Love review: one of the standout films of the year so far

    4 June 2021 Joanna Scanlan as Mary in AFTER LOVE BFI Distribution How to rebuild after love? How to decide who to become, following a loss so fundamental that all coordinates seem thrown in the air? These and other difficult questions are explored in Aleen Khan's magnificent first film, set between Dover and Calais.

  7. 'After Love' Review: Personal and Cultural Divides Drive a Fine Debut

    Reviews Mar 13, 2022 1:04pm PT 'After Love' Review: A Double Life Reveals a World of Cultural Difference in a Strong British Debut Much celebrated in its native Britain, Aleem Khan's...

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    All Critics Top Critics All Audience Verified Audience Dennis Schwartz Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews Astute drama. Full Review | Original Score: B | Aug 15, 2023 Ty Burr Ty Burr's Watch List...

  9. 'After Love' Review: A Widow's Disturbing Discovery

    Mary (played tenderly by Joanna Scanlan) is a white British woman who converted to Islam after falling in love as a teen with a Pakistani-British Muslim named Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). The two have ...

  10. After Love review: brilliant debut anchored by a stunning leading turn

    Review at a glance. 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 ...

  11. 'After Love' Review: Joanna Scanlan Shines as a Grieving Widow in a

    After Love. The Bottom Line On the money about love and grief. Cast: Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss, Nasser Memarzia. Director-screenwriter: Aleem Khan 1 hour 29 minutes. An opening ...

  12. After Love (2020 film)

    The film received positive reviews from critics, with praise for Khan's direction and Scanlan's performance. Both were nominated at the 75th BAFTA awards, with Scanlan winning for best actress . Plot Mary Hussain ( Joanna Scanlan) and her husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) return home one night only for Ahmed to unexpectedly die.

  13. After Love movie review & film summary (2017)

    In many ways, "After Love" is a wonderful exercise in blocking; Lafosse coordinates Bejo and Kahn's precise positions in the frame to communicate respective power or its fundamental imbalance. He routinely demonstrates how his characters' conflicted interiority transfers onto their actions and their home. "After Love" nevertheless ...

  14. After Love

    Directed By: Aleem Khan Written By: Aleem Khan After Love Metascore Universal Acclaim Based on 14 Critic Reviews 81 User Score Available after 4 ratings tbd My Score Hover and click to give a rating Add My Review Where to Watch Amazon ($1.99) All Watch Options Top Cast View All Joanna Scanlan Mary Nathalie Richard Geneviève Talid Ariss Solomon

  15. 'Finally, a film made for me!': readers' best films of 2023

    The conversation between the white American and Korean leads about dreaming in different languages was a standout moment in a gorgeous film that felt like a heartbreaking novel perfectly suited to ...

  16. After Love Movie Review

    Our review: Parents say: ( 1 ): Kids say: Not yet rated Add your rating. Writer-director Aleem Khan's debut feature film is a confidently handled and highly original drama that rightly earned him three BAFTA nominations. After Love 's lead actor, however, went one better, with Scanlan winning the Best Actress award for her portrayal of Mary.

  17. After Love

    94% Tomatometer 48 Reviews 88% Audience Score 50+ Ratings What to know Critics Consensus After Love marks an impressively nuanced feature debut for writer-director Aleem Khan -- and a brilliant...

  18. After Love review: grieving for a house divided

    Sight and Sound Reviews Reviews After Love grieves for a house divided by the English Channel Love and loss surface in Dover and Calais in Aleem Khan's feature debut, a sympathetic portrait of a widow left reeling by discovery of her husband's secret life. 2 June 2021 By Pamela Hutchinson After Love (2020)

  19. After Love (2020)

    After Love: Directed by Aleem Khan. With Joanna Scanlan, Nathalie Richard, Talid Ariss, Nasser Memarzia. Set in the port town of Dover, Mary Hussain suddenly finds herself a widow following the unexpected death of her husband. A day after the burial, she discovers he has a secret just twenty-one miles across the English Channel in Calais.

  20. 'Love After Love' Review: Elegance Without a Center

    Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 24 minutes. Watch on Mubi. Explore More in TV and Movies Not sure what to watch next? We can help. How do you make a movie about...

  21. Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud review

    When one evening Betty and Chetan are overheard by Solo spilling their deepest secrets to each other over glasses of rum, we feel a deep cut of grief at the way the revelations shatter their...

  22. Review: Divorce, French-style, in the gripping domestic drama 'After Love'

    'After Love' In French with English subtitles. Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica. See the most-read stories in Entertainment this ...

  23. Love After Love movie review & film summary (2018)

    A beautiful, plucky widow finds that her adult sons pose a threat to her chance to find new love. Both versions of that story are TV-movie perennials. But "Love After Love" is different. This first-time feature from writer/director Russell Harbaugh has an understated, intimate, pointillist style, with a cool jazz score that matches its ...

  24. 'Love After Love' Review: Elegant but Empty Period Melodrama

    Camera: Christopher Doyle. Editor: Mary Stephen. Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto. With: Sandra Ma, Eddie Peng, Faye Yu, Ning Chang, Fan Wei, Isabella Leong, Paul Chun. (Mandarin dialogue) Ann Hui's third ...