There’s a tremendous human warmth to this love story from writer-director Clio Barnard, a social-realist tale that you might compare to Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (though Loach might not have made the landlord the good guy). It’s a drama of autumnal love conquering the divisions of race, the disillusionments of middle age, the discomfort of parenthood and grandparenthood, and the tensions of class.
Adeel Akhtar is Ali, a likable, happy-go-lucky British Asian in Bradford whose family is well-off. They own properties and insofar as Ali has a job, it is going around collecting rent, and he is a genial friend to the tenants and their families. Ali sees himself as a frustrated DJ and a musician: his house has a converted basement “mancave” where he keeps his extensive vinyl collection. But Ali has a terrible secret: his wife Runa (played by the excellent Ellora Torchia) has outgrown her puppyish husband intellectually and they are separating. Rather than confess this shaming fact to his family, the couple are still living together.
Then, while taking the daughter of one of his tenant families to school, Ali comes across Ava (played with forthright charm and good humour by Claire Rushbrook), a woman of Irish heritage who is a classroom assistant. She is a widowed mother whose late husband was an abusive bully, and his ugly attitudes may have infected their son Callum (played by Shaun Thomas, from Barnard’s 2013 film The Selfish Giant), who has himself become a new father. Ava is a sweet-natured and generous soul, young at heart, fond of music and looking for love.
She instantly clicks with Ali, and their growing relationship inevitably causes problems with their respective clans. And it turns out that Ava has a first-class arts degree, so there is a danger that Ali will be educationally outclassed by her just as he was by Runa. Most agonisingly for Ali, his sister icily accuses him, in Hinglish, of running around with a “gori [white] chav”. Ali cannot confess that he is now a single man, so his private ordeal gets worse.
Barnard creates very watchable set-pieces where nothing of any great narrative import appears to be happening. In one such scene, Ali gives Ava a lift to a dodgy neighbourhood and they are set on by kids throwing stones at the car. Ali gets out and miraculously defuses the situation by turning up his car’s music system and gets them all dancing. The scene might have come over as a bit of do-goodery, but Barnard makes it part of her optimist aesthetic.
The movie does not skate over the fact that Ali is sleeping with Ava, but their relationship is treated matter of factly, without any prurience, and yet not without romanticism. You see them waking up together in bed, for all the world as if they are a married couple who have been together years. There is no eroticism, exactly, but there is gentleness and tenderness. Barnard’s film is an essay in acceptance and love.