Greetings again from the darkness. There are multiple ways one can interpret the first feature film from writer-director Aleem Khan; however for me, this worked best as a study of identity – how we define ourselves and our life. It’s an unusual start to a story. A woman is going about her normal kitchen duties, preparing tea for her husband who is relaxing in the other room after an event. Before the opening credits roll, the man suddenly and unexpectedly passes away. This sends the wife into grief and shock … although an even bigger shock awaits her.
Joanna Scanlan plays Mary, the wife. She’s an Englishwoman and converted Muslim. While organizing her late husband’s wallet, phone, and texts, she comes across information that spurs her curiosity and sends her on a journey via train, ferry, and taxi, 21 miles across the English Channel to Calais. There are three ‘natural’ reactions to finding out your spouse has a secret family. First, confront them about it … not possible in this case. Second, shrug it off and move on with your life. Third, confront the ‘other’ family. Somehow, Mary finds a way to botch her confrontation. She ends up being mistaken for the cleaning woman by Genevieve (Nathalie Richard), and Mary finds herself inside the home where a family picture – quite similar to the one Mary carries – sits on display. Also surprising is the presence of a teenage boy named Solomon (Talid Ariss).
The next few days are quite awkward for Mary and us viewers. She’s helping pack up Genevieve’s belongings for an upcoming move, and Mary’s husband’s shirts are included in these items. A striking contrast of physicality exists between the two women, and Mary quietly entrenches herself into the lives of Genevieve and Solomon, who struggle with a strained mother-son relationship. We can’t help but wonder how this quandary will resolve, and the longer it goes on, the more challenging it becomes for Mary to come clean.
Director Khan includes numerous variations on cracks, splits, fissures, and breaks … some more subtle than others. Each represents the collapse of the façade Mary previously understood as her life. She even catches herself making two cups of tea out of habit, and repeatedly listening to the final saved voicemail from her husband … desperately searching for assurances of his love or clues that she might have missed. Frequent movie watchers will recognize the lead actors here, as Ms. Scanlan (NOTES ON A SCANDAL, 2004) and Ms. Richard (CACHE’, 2005) work frequently. Composer Chris Roe’s string score blends nicely with the on screen stress as the pulling back the curtain on one man’s life exposes the fractured world of others. Love, grief, and identity, are all on trial here as we are reminded to find our own identity.
Opens in theaters on January 20, 2023