British Romance Ali & Ava‘s Overstuffed Mess Is Part of Its Honest Appeal

Movies Reviews Clio Barnard
British Romance Ali & Ava‘s Overstuffed Mess Is Part of Its Honest Appeal

Even before they meet, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and Ava’s (Claire Rushbrook) lives are full of complications. Although Ali separated from his wife (Ellora Torchia) months earlier, the two of them still live in the same house (“like flatmates”), while she finishes studying for a degree. They’ve been maintaining their marriage charade in front of his large family, not wanting to invoke anyone’s ire or disappointment.

As for Ava—a teacher’s aide, mother of four grown children and grandmother to five— it’s rare she gets a moment to herself. She’s still dealing with the emotional fallout from her last relationship, with a man who abused her relentlessly. Though he’s dead now, he’s left an uneasy legacy with their son Callum (Shaun Thomas), who seems to have half Ava’s sweetness, and half his father’s brutality. He’s not pleased about her connecting with a new man, and not afraid to express that displeasure—at one point, with a sword.

With so much going on for both of them, neither is actively on the look out for a partner. And yet from the moment they meet—as Ali offers Ava a lift home from school on a biblically rainy day—there’s an undeniable spark. Ali & Ava follows the pair as they explore whether that spark is strong enough to stand up to the prevailing winds of the rest of their lives.

Writer/director Clio Barnard’s third feature is packed with weighty material; in addition to the issues already mentioned, racism, mental illness and the specter of lost dreams all have their parts to play. Unfortunately, the film only runs a whisker over 90 minutes, which is far too lean a runtime to support all that Barnard is trying to cover. Several of the subplots are substantial enough to power a whole narrative, but crammed together, serving as background noise to a love story, few get the requisite space to breathe. Callum suffers the worst for this—Thomas’ performance hits the perfect midpoint between bruised vulnerability and seething violence, and his character raises so many questions around the intergenerational trauma of domestic abuse, learned racism and toxic masculinity, to have his array of problems “solved” so neatly casts a frustrating pall over an otherwise emotionally honest movie.

Still, there’s something to be said for a film that often functions as a romantic comedy—albeit an unconventional one—taking place in a world that feels so bustling and populated with real people dealing with genuine concerns (even if those concerns aren’t always given a proper airing). Ali and Ava have been busy and fully living their lives, not waiting around for the other to show up and save them from an empty existence. As such, there are no great fireworks when they are together—their days are noisy enough as it is. Instead, there’s a sense of calm. They could hardly be more different in terms of background or temperament, yet the solace they find in each other’s company is deep and true. They know what it is to be lonely in the midst of a crowd.

Akhtar and Rushbrook have been mainstays of British film and TV for over two decades, offering support across a host of different projects—just this summer, they both appeared (but didn’t share any scenes) in the BBC show Sherwood. Though they are familiar enough faces, that neither actor is known as a romantic lead gives the central relationship an extra level of tenderness and fragility.

Both radiate tremendous warmth. Akhtar plays the more gregarious of the two, bubbling over with enthusiasm in his love for music (the movie boasts a vibrant, eclectic soundtrack) and for people. A self-confessed “0-70” type, Ali will readily admit that he can be a bit much for some; in a few poignant scenes, we can see the overbright beam of his affection making the already-uncomfortable situation with his wife even worse. At the other end of the spectrum, Rushbrook’s reserved Ava needs encouragement to express any of the many things that are on her mind; encouragement Ali is happy to—clumsily, but earnestly—offer. Akhtar and Rushbrook play the courtship delicately; their characters are a little mystified why they like each other and why the other likes them, and—despite the obvious attraction—it takes them a little while to feel fully comfortable in one another’s company. The gentleness of their courtship is a lovely thing to witness, especially against a background of such multifarious chaos.

Ali & Ava is Barnard’s second movie set in Bradford, a northern English city not known as a hotspot for romance (despite being the birthplace of the Brontë sisters!). Nevertheless, she shoots it with a loving gaze, the vertiginous streets providing some surprisingly striking views. But it’s the people who make a city, and she foregrounds the diversity of Bradford’s inhabitants, who do more than anything to add to the vivid, immersive sense of place. As much as Akhtar and Rushbrook lend this film most of its heart, Barnard’s Bradford is so richly drawn, she gives the impression that any other two individuals would have stories just as complex and compelling as her chosen protagonists. Yes, Ali & Ava is messy, and overly stuffed, and not quite as satisfying as it could have been—but if anything, that makes it feel all the more true to life.

Director: Clio Barnard
Writer: Clio Barnard
Stars: Adeel Akhtar, Claire Rushbrook, Shaun Turner, Ellora Torchia
Release Date: July 29, 2022

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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