Written and directed by Clio Barnard
Review by Danielle Papamichael
Clio Barnard’s melancholy yet feelgood Ali and Ava seems refreshingly authentic in contrast to many romantic dramas. Its social realistic aesthetic paves the way for nuanced characters, whilst tackling deeper themes: race, class tensions, prejudice and the weariness of middle age.
Ali and Ava is the third of Barnard’s films set in Bradford, ten miles from Otley where she grew up. Her native understanding lends insight into the deprivation of the city, whilst avoiding stereotypes and maintaining the dignity of the characters. Ali and Ava’s two protagonists improvise in scenes that feel tender and real.
The story follows British Pakistani Ali (Adeel Akhtar), a chipper landlord whose daily routine includes helping with the school run for his Hungarian tenants’ daughter. She is struggling to adapt to life in the UK, and in an opening scene Ali endearingly coaxes her into agreeing to go to school by offering to carry her on his shoulders. Ava (Claire Rushbrook), the young girl’s teaching assistant, similarly supports her; it is through this shared kindness that the pair meet.
Whilst collecting the young girl during a heavy downpour, Ali offers Ava a lift home. At first she politely declines, but after Ali insists, she gets in. Ava is reserved and Ali is gregarious; the flicker of their connection is touching.
Ali’s friendly outgoing demeanour betrays his loneliness. His wife, Runa (Ellora Torchia), wants a divorce, although Ali wants to stay married. They still live together (in separate bedrooms) for the sake of Ali’s traditional close-knit family, whom he fears will disapprove of their separation.
Ava, a single grandmother of Irish heritage, lives in Holme Wood, one of Bradford’s condemned estates. A survivor of harrowing abuse from her alcoholic ex-husband, she is remarkably soft-hearted and coy. Ava lives for others, not herself; she, in effect, gives up her house so that her grandchildren can use it as their stomping ground. In parallel to Ali, Ava carries the burden of loneliness around with her; on the bus to work she looks wistfully at the intimate lovers sat a few rows ahead.
Although links can be made between Ali and Ava’s lives, it’s their clashing music taste that ultimately brings them together. Barnard uses music as the central motif throughout the film. Ali loves electronic music whilst Ava adores country and folk, choices that perfectly mirror their personalities. As their favourite songs are shared, Ali’s spontaneity allows Ava to let go and Ava’s attentiveness makes room for Ali to feel nurtured. The power of music not only unites the pair but gives them the confidence to overcome several obstacles: the prejudice of his family and racism from hers; the shadow of Ali’s marriage; and the hostility from Ava’s son towards a new father figure in the home.
Ali and Ava is a hopeful, timely film. Although the plot is simple, the characters are vulnerable, complex and endearing. Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook’s chemistry is magical, a creative triumph.