ALI & AVA
Written and directed by Clio Barnard
94 minutes, rated M
Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava is paced so gently you might almost start wondering if it’s a romance at all – or just one of those heartwarming movies where two characters from different walks of life are thrown together and become fast friends.
Almost, but not quite. However long it takes the characters to put their feelings into action, there’s no mistaking the warm, teasing chemistry between Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, who star as Ali and Ava respectively.
There’s no mistaking the warm, teasing chemistry between Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook.
While you might not know either of these actors by name, chances are their faces will at least be vaguely familiar. Akhtar has been in a lot of comedies, including Four Lions, The Dictator and The Big Sick; Rushbrook is probably still best-known as Brenda Blethyn’s stroppy younger daughter in Mike Leigh’s 1993 Secrets and Lies.
In some ways we’re close to the Mike Leigh universe here, though the sometimes fussily lyrical style is unlike Leigh’s deliberate plainness. As in previous Barnard films like The Selfish Giant, the setting is Bradford, West Yorkshire, a former manufacturing centre with its own homely beauty: the narrow houses with their slate roofs, the sloping streets that add a dimension of visual drama to everyday life.
Ava is a teaching assistant at a local primary school, fiftyish, widowed, from an Irish family, a little weary but still up for a laugh, and outwardly all motherly good nature (as she says with some pride, she is in fact a grandmother five times over).
Ali is a decade or so younger, though with his slightly abashed body language and the red cap that often overshadows his face, you might take him from a distance for someone more youthful still.
Part of a relatively well-off section of the Pakistani immigrant community, he’s a bedroom musician and sometime DJ, but his only visible work is collecting rents on properties owned by his extended family who live close by.
He’s also married, technically at least: he and his wife (Ellora Torchia) are no longer a couple, but still live together and have not made their separation public. As with Ava’s past, this story filters out gradually, as the protagonists start to reveal more to each other than they do to anyone else.
It all starts straightforwardly, with Ali crossing paths with Ava at the school and offering her a lift home. On the way they bond over music, or at least The Buzzcocks, since otherwise they prove to have quite different tastes.
Among the crucial traits they do share are humour, gentleness, and an ability to defuse tense situations – whether it’s a distressed child needing to be coaxed down from a piece of play equipment, or the agitation their relationship causes to some third parties even before it properly begins.
At a certain point, some buffs may think back to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 melodrama Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, or to Douglas Sirk’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows, which was Fassbinder’s model in turn. Both centre on a woman who enters into a relationship with a younger man, to the dismay of family members from the next generation.
But while Barnard may well be aware of these precursors, like her characters she has a knack for defusing tension rather than letting it mount. Rather than melodrama, what she’s after is the poetry of the commonplace, something that calls for a peculiarly delicate touch.
The moment you start to force things, you risk slipping into condescension, as if we were meant to be touched by the fact of “ordinary” people having feelings at all.
An instance of the sort of thing I could have done without is the recurring image of Ali dancing alone in the dark on top of his car, as if the mist around him were dry ice at a club.
But the heart of the film is in the lead performances, which happily give no sense of commenting on the characters from afar. At best, we’re given room to interpret Akhtar’s gruffness for ourselves rather than having him served up pre-judged – and Rushbrook, as the more emotionally open of the pair, is as credible a woman in love as you could hope to see.
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