Coming off the Ruth Wilson-starring film Dark River, Clio Bernard’s new film, Ali & Ava, is a sensitive exploration of two complexly troubled people, who turn lovers. Although the cross-cultural relationship that blossoms is a fascinating one, it doesn’t inject anything remarkably new to this, arguable, subsection of British cinema. The pinnacle example of the impact that Ali & Ava could’ve achieved can be seen in the iconic 1985 British film My Beautiful Laundrette, which touches on many similar themes but concludes as a better-rounded, fully-fledged tale.
Set in the English town of Bradford, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) meets Ava (Claire Rushbrook) while doing the school run for one of his tenants. Ali is a landlord, who dabbles with his passion for music on the side. Ava is a teaching assistant at a local primary school and is the mother of four children, who lives on the other, more “chavvy,” side of town. Both Ali and Ava are going through troubled times with their loved ones, for different reasons. However, against all odds, fate leads the two of them down each other’s paths which results in a blossoming relationship. But it could cause the destruction of their familial bonds, so both of them attempt to fix their contrasting lives, while still seeing each other.
Ali & Ava fits perfectly into the British Film Institute’s range of backed films, which for the most part are social realist tales set in varying British towns. Although they are very different films, Aleem Khan’s Joanna Scanlan-starring film After Love is another recent example of the well-made arsenal of films that the BFI continues to produce. Bernard’s film is an astoundingly naturalistic feat that is as equally charming as it is heart-wrenching to watch.
Starring Adeel Akhtar, of Four Lions fame, and Claire Rushbrook, both actors deliver equally subtle performances. The whole film is built off the back of them, it’s heavily reliant on their ability to act and emote like real people, in a grounded manner. Akhtar’s Ali is almost always infectiously full of joyful energy, which creates an instant connection to the audience as one is imbued by his cheerfulness. He is quite possibly the best landlord to ever grace the screen, or reality for that matter. Likewise, Akhtar delivers brilliantly as Ali deals with the more troubled, confusing side of his life. Rushbrook is asked a lot of here as Ava’s family comes with heaps of abusive baggage and she delivers with a broken, yet ever so resilient touch.
Bernard captures the impossible complexities of Ali and Ava’s life with a deftly humane touch. Aiding the performances is the film’s cinematography which relies almost entirely on naturally sourced light. There are many scenes that are underexposed or dimly lit, which assists the believability of the film’s narrative. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography doesn’t pay any attention to Hollywood’s conventions as Bernard’s interest lies solely on the realistic depiction of her characters and their interesting, but complicated lives. This shows great flexibility on Birkeland’s part given that he shot the Renée Zellweger-starring film Judy, which was quite glamorously filmed.
Although Ali & Ava isn’t anything revolutionary, it does deliver exactly what it promises. Audiences should seek it out for Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook’s excellent performances, but also for its gripping story which is a quiet and somewhat tragic study on these two differing people, but with a healthy dose of added joy.
This review is from the BFI London Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.