by Sarah Cook
British director Clio Bernard’s previous works have been near-perfect depictions of human life across the United Kingdom. Part-drama and part-documentary The Arbor tackled a playwrights return to the council estate in which she grew up whilst The Selfish Giant looked at a young boy’s relationship with a stallion.
With Ali & Ava, Bernard tackles a romance that is every bit as human and layered as her previous work.
Starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook as the titular characters, Ali & Ava revolves around two people – a teacher and a landlord – who meet in Bradford one day. As their relationship grows, the two have to deal with the trauma of their own past and the judgement of their families.
There is no grand story to Ali & Ava. It never journeys beyond the relationship of two people. But Bernard’s film is an absolutely exceptional character study. This is an intricate look at the sum of people’s parts. Despite coming from the same down both characters come from their own different lives, with different wants and likes as well as different emotional baggage and scars – they are drawn to one another.
It’s clear that Adeel Akhtar’s Ali is based on a real character because he feels lifted from life and placed on the screen. This is partly due to Bernard’s succinct and sensitive script but also thanks to Akhtar’s empathic portrayal. Atop a car, submerged in the mist, Ali dances to house music as a release – a way to combat ever bit of internal turmoil of his character. He then faces the day with aplomb, somewhat erratic and excitable but kind and caring. It’s a multi-faceted and assured performance deters from what is expected. Reminiscent of Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, Akhtar is so charismatic to watch.
Claire Rushbrook’s role as Ava is understated but in a terrific way. Her character – a kindly teacher and caretaker to her children and friends – could easily be the archetypal mother role. Yet Ava’s tenderness comes somewhat from her trauma, and it is clear she has been lonely for some time before Ali comes into her life and offers her something new. It’s an astute performance by Rushbrook.
Together, Akhtar and Rushbrook have wondrous chemistry that they seemingly slot so easily into each other’s life.
Ali & Ava is a beautiful and studious bit of filmmaking that will reach out to all of us. With this film, Bernard understands that humans are fallible but also capable of great love. Against this cinematic landscape filled with men dressed as bats and other spandex-clad superheroes, Bernard offers something intimate. Ali & Ava will reach out to audiences and give them something earnest and real.
Most importantly, for scar-ridden, lonely adults, it will offer them hope.
Ali & Ava is out 4th March