Ali & Ava (2021)

British cinema is at its best when it is able to truly capture the plight of the working class. Clio Barnard’s newest film, Ali & Ava, premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2021 and has been well received by critics and audiences alike thanks to its universal story. The film is set in Bradford and follows the titular protagonists (Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, respectively) as they meet, and their relationship develops. Both characters have received judgement and prejudice for different reasons as Ali faces racism while Ava lives in a poorer area of town. Together, the pair find that they share a lot in common such as a passion for music and this blossoms into a relationship that develops concern from the family and friends of both parties. On top of this, the film also explores emotional challenges as Ava has to overcome the trauma of her last relationship as her deceased husband was abusive. With Akhtar and Rushbrook bringing profound performances that perfectly capture the working class experience, Ali & Ava is an uplifting tale of love.

The film is written and directed by Clio Barnard, who has managed to bring forth the complexities that come with everyday life, by interweaving brilliant characters. The plot may seem pretty simple on the surface as the two protagonists meet and fall in love, facing plenty of prejudice from their friends and family, and learning how to thrive in the face of these protests. Barnard has done a flawless job of getting to the heart of her characters and really delving deep into their development and characterisation, so we are able to truly understand Ali and Ava’s decisions. The way that Barnard captures Bradford makes it feel as though it is based in its own universe and shows that there is more to people than originally perceived.

Adeel Akhtar is fantastic as local landlord, Ali as he provides a grounded performance that has so many layers. To say that he deserves his BAFTA nomination is an understatement, as it feels as though his performance – and the film overall – has been overlooked by awarding bodies outside the UK. Ali is a person who loves music and is always doing his best to please the people in his life. When he meets Ava, it is evident that this is the first time in a while when he is able to put himself first. Akhtar brings forth Ali’s passion for life as well as the complexities that come with it. It’s an intelligent performance that becomes more resonant as the film goes on. Akhtar’s chemistry with Rushbrook is undeniable and the two of them complement each other perfectly. The scene in which they are both listening to their music is extremely beautiful, as they are sharing the same experience through a different song, which is reflective of how their lives have crossed from travelling down different paths. Akhtar’s performance is nothing short of charismatic and magnetic, while also ensuring that there is sincerity in the character, even in the lighter moments.

Playing Ava is Claire Rushbrook who does a brilliant job of delving into the character’s complicated story. Ava’s path is very different from Ali’s as her struggles have come from inside the home. She is a working class mother who endured abuse from her husband for many years before his death. Not only does Ava have to put up with the racist opinions from those in her family, but she clearly struggles to let her guard down and open her heart to another man following her trauma. It’s a shame that Rushbrook isn’t receiving award recognition for her performance. While Akhtar’s fantastic performance is more extroverted, Rushbrook’s is more subtle in that her revelations and development occur later on in the film, while also showcasing the pressures that are put on her as a mother, a friend, and a teaching assistant.

The cinematography is provided by Ole Bratt Birkeland who does a brilliant job of showcasing the magic within Bradford and the many places it is home to. The characters live in the same city but come from different walks of life and this is captured in Birkeland’s cinematography as we venture into the lovely built-up areas near the centre where Ali lives that is known to have a large South Asian community, while contrasting this with the rural working class community on the city’s outskirts where Ava lives. Bradford works as a visual microcosm that has an abundance of different communities within it and Birkeland does a brilliant job of ensuring that the film doesn’t feel claustrophobic in terms of location. The way that Birkeland heavily focuses on characters during scenes of tension is fantastic as we are able to see every movement that the actors make. The scene in which Ava’s son, Callum (Shaun Thomas), confronts his mother and Ali at a local bonfire ventures into thriller territory thanks to the unpredictability and the sharp focus that Birkeland has on the characters.

Ali & Ava is a film that feels so timely and timeless at the same time. It is a film that doesn’t need bells and whistles in its production and is proof that having a wonderful visionary at the helm with stellar performances can draw out the magic and complexity from a plot that may seem simple at first. Akhtar and Rushbrook are a fantastic team and the way that they develop the characters and showcase the lows and highs of the relationship is nuanced and resonant. Barnard’s modern day Romeo and Juliet may not have the grandeur that is expected of such a love story, but Ali & Ava is a beautiful take on the human experience.

What did you think of Ali & Ava? Let me know in the comments below!

Ali & Ava is available to view in cinemas now!

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