ALI & AVA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Clio Barnard

Stars: Claire Rushbrook, Adeel Akhtar, Shaun Thomas, Ellora Torscha.

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This somewhat grim and downbeat kitchen sink drama about an interracial relationship and working-class people and their tribulations will appeal to those who appreciated the bleak nature of those socially realistic films of Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold and even early Mike Leigh which were firmly set in a working-class milieu. But it is unlikely to have broader appeal.  

Ava (played by Claire Rushbrook, who works extensively in television but who also appeared on screen in Mike Leigh’s award-winning drama Secrets & Lies) is a middle-aged widow with a couple of adult children and five grandchildren, but whose life seems tinged by sadness. She works as a teacher’s aide at a local school, a job she loves. Ali (Adeel Akhtar, from Four Lions, etc) is a British born Pakistani who worked as a DJ. He is in the middle of a divorce from his much younger wife Runa (Ellora Torscha). He hasn’t told his family about the separation yet and they still live under the same roof. This brings some hint of tension and lots of worried glances to their meals around the dinner table.  

But one rainy day Ava and Ali meet when he offers her a lift home from the school. He is there to pick up the daughter of one of his tenants. A relationship begins between the two forged by their own loneliness, unhappy backstories and a shared love of music. But Ava’s son Callum (Shaun Thomas), who has recently become a father, disapproves of the relationship, which creates tension within her own family. His angry attitude reflects his late father’s toxic attitudes and bigotry. 

Written and directed by Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant, etc), Ali & Ava is her fourth feature film and continues her fascination with social issues and injustice. This character study is also a drama that explores themes of family, class and race in contemporary Britain, and even touches upon the theme of domestic abuse. It’s also a film about second chances and has an optimism that is rare in her films. Drawing upon the experiences of real people in her circle of acquaintances, Barnard uses an observational style which gives the material a more realistic quality, and she captures the nature of this urban setting well.  

The film is set in the grim working class suburban environment of Bradford, whose characters seem locked into a cycle of poverty and despair with a few moments of happiness. The dark hued cinematography of Ole Bratt Birkeland (who also shot Barnard’s debut feature The Arbor) captures the grim setting nicely and contributes to the overall grim mood of the film.  

The two leads deliver natural performances that also enhance the film’s realism. Rushbrook, in particular, has a world weary and lived in quality that perfectly suits her character, while Akhtar brings a quiet and introspective quality to his performance. Both actors appeared together in Enola Holmes, and they develop an easy-going rapport and chemistry that informs their relationship. However, I was left cold and uninvolved by the drama here and couldn’t connect emotionally with either of the characters. There have been numerous other romantic dramas and comedies exploring an unlikely relationship between mismatched couples that have been much more compelling and enjoyable than Ali & Ava.  

Sometimes the accents are a little thick and broad and there were a couple of scenes that could have used subtitles. Music plays an important role in the film as well. 

★★☆

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