In Ali & Ava, Yorkshire-born director Clio Barnard’s fourth feature film, two lovers defy the aged, gendered, classed and racialised expectations of their families and communities. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a landlord with a gift for the gab and a tender care for his tenants; Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a quiet but warm teaching assistant with enduring responsibilities for her grown-up children and their families.
The pair first meet outside the school gates, when Ali, always with time to spare, is picking up a friend’s child from school in a rainstorm. Determined not to let even a stranger wait for a bus in the rain, he offers Ava a lift. This stormy start might recall the art of foreshadowing of another Yorkshire native, Charlotte Brontë, but Ali and Ava’s love affair defies this pathetic fallacy and is more often quietly joyful than desperately despairing.
Ali and Ava is clearly inspired in part by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which itself reworked Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Drawing on her encounters with the Bradford residents she met during the filming of The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, Barnard asks: “What would happen if you took melodrama as a genre and applied it to a social-realist version of Bradford that’s based on real people? […] There’s a lot of kindness, generosity and support in Bradford and I wanted to see that writ large on the big screen”. The film chips away at the stereotypes that might have emerged in another director’s hands. The divided realities that shape Ali and Ava’s relationship to one another and to those around them create difference but not rupture, whether via the experience of racism, domestic violence, parenthood, class, employment or precarity. In Audre Lorde’s words, difference is allowed to “spark”.
This celebration of difference is not about “tolerance” as per liberal multiculturalism but rather about the genuine pleasures of discovery, movingly explored through the film’s soundtrack. In Ali and Ava’s first real scene together, they wind their way through the streets of Bradford. With the Buzzcocks blasting on the car radio and Ali bellowing the lyrics, Ava must admit to being a fan of folk and country rather than rock and punk. The next time they meet, they jump around on a set of sofas in Ava’s living room and create their own silent disco.
As the will-be-lovers serenade each other with tuneless abandon, Ava’s adult son Callum walks in and, discovering his mother with a man who will never match up to his recently passed father, responds with heightened jealousy. Callum is a young man mourning his beloved father whilst remaining (wilfully) ignorant of his patterns of violence. But Barnard, again, allows him to be more than a stereotype. He is more often than not seen holding his baby daughter and cooing to her.
Adeel Akhtar as Ali is so intense in his enthusiasm for Ava and for life itself that when he mellows to a mournful or even a desiring whisper, your heart skips a beat; Claire Rushbrook as Ava exudes such warmth, her contagious smile shifting ever so slightly to convey pride or amusement, that when she cries it is intensely moving. Their demonstrations of care, affection and desire for one another are tender but rarely explosive. When Ali commits to learning a Bob Dylan tune on the ukelele – the grandest of gestures – it is delivered on a train, tentatively and out of tune. Their love is always framed in the context of quotidian encounters with family, friends and work – driving kids to school, helping them off a climbing frame, making food, going to the pub. This is a film about the ordinariness of love.
Clara Bradbury-Rance | @CBradburyRance