A warm and tender drama
Ali & Ava is the latest film from British director Clio Barnard. As with two of her previous titles, The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, this is set on a Bradford housing estate, and like those films, this isn’t always easy to watch.
That’s not to say the film isn’t a good one, however. Barnard is a fine director and storyteller so you shouldn’t skip out on this. But as the main protagonists, whose lives have been touched by tragedy, have little hope for a happy future together, the film is sometimes quite bleak and that can make for uncomfortable viewing.
Needless to say, this isn’t a fanciful romantic movie featuring characters whose lives are hard to identify with. This isn’t a Hallmark television movie or a Nicholas Sparks adaptation where a happy-ever-after resolution is guaranteed from the start.
This is a socio-realist drama about two individuals who are struggling to survive, with real problems and real pressures, that rarely feature in the cinematic love stories that regularly fill up our television schedules and streaming services. In short, you shouldn’t expect a fairytale romance in Ali & Ava, although that shouldn’t put you off this believable and tender kitchen sink drama.
Ali (Adeel Akhtar) makes money from being a landlord but he’s not exactly a property millionaire. He shares a home with his estranged wife, not because he is trying to make their marriage work but because he can’t confess to his British-Pakistani family that his relationship has ended. While he manages to remain upbeat, despite his cultural predicament, it’s clear that he is inwardly sad and lonely, and desperately in need of somebody to hold onto.
Ava (Clare Rushbrook) is a widowed mother who makes a living as a classroom assistant. Like Ali, she has been blighted with a troubled life, one that was rife with marital discord and domestic abuse. She has managed to find happiness in her job and her family but like Ali, it is also clear that she is lonely and inwardly troubled.
These two single people are destined to live a life filled with drudgery and memories of broken dreams. But as is the case with many of us, they are still able to smile, despite the life events that have knocked them down and limited their chances. The fact that they are able to remain resilient is admirable, although their lives threaten to go on another downward spiral when their relationship begins.
The two are quick to bond and fall in love with one another but despite the happiness they find, their respective families threaten to tear them apart. Ali’s sister is worried about the effect his relationship will have on his parents and Ava’s son is unhappy that his mother is dating again, mainly because he misses his real father but there is the assumption that he may be a little racist too.
Do they maintain their relationship, despite the prejudices of their families and their own deep-rooted insecurities? It would be wrong to go into spoiler territory but if you have seen any of Clio Barnard’s films, you might assume not. While she has given us characters that are easy to root for, she has often messed with our emotions after heaping tragedies upon her film’s protagonists. There is the feeling that Ali and Ava’s relationship may be doomed from the start but to find out how their story concludes, you should give this film a go.
On the whole, the film is a very good one but it is a little oblique at times. Despite the themes of racism, abuse, and social division that form an intrinsic part of the story, they are rarely shown on screen. On the one hand, this is something of a relief as this already bleak film would have become even bleaker. But as these themes are at the heart of Ali and Ava’s suffering, more scenes highlighting the effect these have on their relationship could have added more dramatic heft. The film drifts from one scene to the next and when problems arise in their relationship, we are sometimes left to fill in the blanks when determining what might be causing them.
Still, this isn’t a major issue. Barnard doesn’t need to use heaps of exposition to explain what is going on as she is relying on us to use our own intelligence. It’s nice to watch a film where the director or script doesn’t patronize the viewer, as most of us have the life experiences to connect scenes together, even when Barnard plays freely with the narrative. In short, this is a film that will require you to use your brain, so don’t assume a box of chocolates and a handkerchief will be enough to get you through the tribulations in this love story.
Kitchen sink dramas are quite rare these days as our schedules are filled with fake ‘reality’ shows and talent programmes but back in the 1970s and 80s, they were all the rage thanks to Ken Loach and directors like him. They showed us what life was really like for people growing up in certain parts of Britain without the optimistic escapism that other filmmakers tried to push onto us.
So, while Ali & Ava might be difficult to watch at times, we should still be thankful for Clio Barnard and the handful of filmmakers like her (Lynne Ramsay, Shane Meadows), that continue to work within this genre.
Of course, there will be some that will hate films like hers, such as those that try to ignore the class and racial issues that exist in the UK today. There will also be those who don’t feel the need to tune in to her films because they are already living the problems that she presents.
But while I have sympathy for that latter group of people (and no sympathy for the former), I still recommend Ali & Ava, even if it’s the only kitchen sink drama you watch this year. This film isn’t as miserable as some so don’t expect to come away feeling overly depressed by your viewing experience. This is a warm and tender drama that is more optimistic than some of Barnard’s work, even if the chances of a happy ending aren’t always on the cards.
Verdict - 7.5/10