Clio Bernard’s multicultural love story, which attracts audiences, is not convincing.

Reviews by Joyce Glasser Ali & Ava (March 1, 2022) Certificate 15, 94 mins

From Bradford writer-director Clio Barnard, the multicultural love story is set in Bradford, where Bernard made her exciting, experimental feature film debut The arbor, about Bradford-born playwright Andrea Dunbar. Barnard directed her next film, the more conventional, social-realist adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story The Selfish Giant and her 2018, trouble-at-the-farm melodrama Dark River near Bradford.

Ali & Ava is Bernard’s most conventional film yet, but down to earth again, with Bradford recognizable both in the architecture, the people, the surrounding leafy vantage points and the atmosphere of the melting pot, with good performances from two British staples who have never had romantic leads before . Adel Akhtar (Four lionsTV Murdered by my father) and Claire Rushbrook, whose face is known from numerous supporting roles in films and television shows. Interestingly, she played the street sweeper daughter of factory worker Brenda Blethyn in Mike Leigh’s secrets and lies.

Aside from the fact that the characters aren’t particularly interesting unless you connect to life through headphones, their stories are mundane and their love affair unconvincing.

Barnard makes the family backgrounds of the two protagonists as chaotic and complicated as possible, perhaps to reflect the reality of life in Bradford and the diversity of its residents, while breaking down some of the stereotypes about race and class. Ava, the daughter of the Irish Republications who resisted the English, is white but conceived young and appears to have had four children by two husbands, the last of whom was an abusive bully. She works as a teaching assistant, apparently just for a special needs little girl, Sofia (Ariana Bodorova), which is pretty impressive when the Council pays for this one-on-one care.

Although it’s a bit confusing, Ali seems busy managing his extended family’s possessions, debunking the stereotype that since he’s part Pakistani he should be living in a housing estate on the wrong side of town where White ave lives. Another myth busted when we learn that Ali loves music, has a huge record collection, plays guitar and was a former DJ. It’s about as far removed as you can get from one of those British fundamentalists who shun music and are nursed in a mosque. When Ali goes into a trance, he dances on top of his car and dryly strums a phantom guitar to the music in his headphones. Does anyone really do this?

The surprises keep coming. Ali has a wife, Runa (Ellora Torchia) not from an arranged marriage, but from a love marriage, only the two have already gone their separate ways, although he is still in love. To defy another stereotype, Runa is hard at work pursuing a college degree and we get the feeling she’s dying to leave Bradford.

Ali has enough time and kindness to pick up Sofia, whose family lives on one of his properties, from school – and that’s how he meets Ava.

Here Bernard goes overboard with her determination to blow away the stereotypes. Not only is Runa always seen studying, but Ali shows Ava his book collection (as well as his guitar, which he plays) and she tells him she went to university after kicking out her abusive partner and graduating. She even shows her thesis! God forbid we mistake working-class people in notorious housing developments or Pakistani landlords for empty-headed squares.

Bernard hasn’t rid Bradford of all stereotypes. Ava’s son Callum (Shaun Thomas, from Barnard’s The Selfish Giant), a young father in his early 20s who lives with Ava part-time, still owns the boots Ava tells Ali that her abusive husband was wearing when he kicked her. Ava spared Callum the truth about their relationship, but when he finds out, he transforms from a confrontational, racist thug, a bit like his father, into a different man.

If Barnard’s last film, Dark Riverwas about as dark as they come Ali & Ava is optimistic and full of such fluffy warmth and forgiving reconciliations. The plot is so much about creating conflict to separate the two lovers that you start to feel when all the barriers break down without much trouble.

Equally disappointing is that the relationship is meant to be endearing and uplifting because they are so opposite but both need love. But their love is not convincing, and not only because the chemistry between the two is zero.

Since Akhtar is only nine years younger than Rushbrook, there’s not much that can be done about the age difference, even though Ali acts and lives like a 25-year-old. What do they have in common? Not even her taste in music, it turns out, though we do see them dancing around Ava’s house hooked up to headphones and laughing, which is a lazy way of showing love. Much of the romance is filmed in montage format, except when they visit each other’s homes and learn they’re literate to some degree, phew!

Although we’re told the film was inspired by two real people Barnard met in Bradford, Ali & Ava Don’t avoid comparisons (to which Bernard himself invites the title) with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece from 1973, Ali: Fear eats the soul. It is set in the 1970s and is about a Muslim guest worker in Germany, the socially disadvantaged, and his relationship with a much older German widow from a racist family who wants to protect her heritage. The two meet at a bar where they dance, so the musical connection is there from the start.

Of course, Ali and Ava have an eye-to-eye relationship, while Fassbinder’s film is made more complex and richer by the suspicion that both characters use the other, especially Ali. Fassbinder’s dark film explores a very different kind of love and is all the more fascinating, memorable and profound for it.

Clio Bernard’s multicultural love story, which attracts audiences, is not convincing.

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