ALI & AVA (TIFF2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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With a tendency towards literary adaptation, one of the many stand-out curiosities regarding Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava is that it is based on an original screenplay written by the director herself; both The Selfish Giant (2013) and Dark River (2017) are literary adaptations, as is her forthcoming AppleTV+ series The Essex Serpent. While all Barnard’s films – going back to her debut feature The Arbor (2010) and her earlier shorts – are undeniably imbued with her own distinctive authorial signature, there’s something about Ali & Ava that feels particularly “Barnardian”, and the issue of authorship may be the reason why. Based on people she knew in real-life, it stars Adeel Akhtar as Ali and Claire Rushbrook as the titular characters; the former Barnard met in Toronto some years ago, making the screening of Ali & Ava at the Toronto International Film Festival a particularly poignant one for the filmmaker.

The film’s eponymous characters are both at a crossroads. Recently widowed Ava lives in a working-class area of Bradford in the UK, and works as a teacher’s assistant, supporting her large family of children and grandchildren with unwavering focus as she works on getting her life on track. British-Pakistani Ali has his own relationship problems with his estranged young wife, but he keeps it secret and publicly remains the friendly landlord who delights in looking after his tenants. When dropping a young Hungarian girl who lives in one of his properties off at school, he meets Ava. Despite on the surface having little in common, their shared love of music – he’s an ex-DJ, and she’s into folk and country – forms the basis of an almost immediate bond that only progresses throughout the film, and a complicated, fragile romance reveals itself as a possibility. Its viability, however, is another question entirely.

Both Ava and Ali are at their core fundamentally community minded in their own ways; they know their neighbours and actively care for them. For these carers to allow themselves to look after their own interests, however, provides a range of challenges that straddle race, class, age and ethnicity. But from the outset, music is where their passions overlap, and this is very much a music-driven film, to the point that using the most elastic definition of the term, Ali & Ava at a stretch could even be considered an unorthodox romantic musical.

Reuniting with cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland who shot The Arbor, with Ali & Ava Bradford once again forms the backdrop for Barnard’s exquisitely photographed portrait of life in West Yorkshire. A strong screenplay, strong direction, and – of course – two strong performances from Akhtar and Rushbrook make Ali & Ava something genuinely precious and electrifying, all while remaining focused on the low-key minutia of the everyday lives of its two central characters. Only going from strength to strength, Ali & Ava is another extraordinary achievement in Barnard’s unrelentingly impressive filmography.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).