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Ali & Ava: Interracial romance is a balm of northern soul

Clio Barnard’s fourth feature continues with themes of social realism in a tender romance brimming with empathy and charm.

As someone who was raised in Doncaster since the age of 10, there’s no type of British film that excites me more than ones set up north – especially as most of the movies we make on these fair isles are London-centric.

The north has never got enough attention and it’s certainly not a monolith; there is a regional diversity beyond our varying accents so it’s always a pleasure to see these different communities and cultures, from Liverpool to Leeds, represented in cinematic form. What is rarer than a northern excursion on-screen are the ones that feature people of colour and not simply to use racism as a plot device.  

The Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren-led The Duke was recently guilty of this in an otherwise charming film. The script has an Asian man experience workplace discrimination simply to have Broadbent’s working-class hero prove he’s willing to risk his own job to play the white saviour too. There’s surely a better way to shake up a protagonist’s storyline without the need to call the film’s only featured ethnic minority character the P-word. 

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It’s why a movie like Ali & Ava is such a balm. Clio Barnard’s fourth feature continues the social realism themes of her directorial debut, The Arbor, which used a mix of documentary and fictional elements to tell the story of celebrated Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar and the fraught relationship she had with her mixed-race daughter by a local Pakistani man. Similarly set in Bradford, and based on the experiences of real-life people, Barnard, a West Yorkshire lass herself, explores an interracial romance between two lonely people plodding along in a somewhat purgatorial state.  

Ali, played by Adeel Akhtar, is a sweet and affable music lover from a somewhat well-off Pakistani family who is hiding the fact that he and his wife have separated. Claire Rushbrook’s working-class Ava, meanwhile, is a teaching assistant of Irish heritage who spends her days looking after other people’s kids, including her own children’s growing brood.

Maybe not star-crossed lovers, but there’s certainly racial tension causing resistance to Ali and Ava’s budding romance. Barnard shows a deft hand when it comes to showcasing these sorts of prejudices; one minute Ava’s eldest son Callum is dancing with his mum and sister to a Bollywood-inspired aerobics, the next, he’s threatening Ali with a samurai sword, channelling the sort of angry bigotry his late abusive father was partial to.

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Even Ali’s sister presents a bias towards the “gori [white] chav” her brother is associating with, reflecting the underlying sensitivities that can manifest in certain multicultural communities. 

Barnard is obviously not the first to capture the cultural agitation between black, brown and white folk in the north of England. East is East, This is England, Four Lions, My Son the Fanatic, Bhaji on the Beach, Kinky Boots and Limbo have navigated these choppy waters to varying degrees but all with sincerity. Though Ali & Ava might have more in common with Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.

Adapted for the screen by director Tony Richardson with the playwright, the 1961 kitchen sink drama centres on Jo (Rita Tushingham), a white school girl whose romance with Black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) leaves her pregnant. Though Jimmy is absent for most of the film, their brief love affair is rather endearing. It captures all the sideways glances, the thrill of hands touching and the passionate sensation of first love. No scene better encapsulates this feeling than the moment Jo and Jimmy share their first kiss; a close-up of their embrace cross-fades into the sparkling stars shining down on them. Just heavenly.  

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Ali and Ava might not be teenagers, but there is a tender innocence to the tentative steps they make to bond. A DIY silent disco frees them from the restraints of familial obligations, using the emotional attachment of music to attach to one another. Ahktar and Rushbrook are so delicate in their delivery that one can’t help but root for their relationship to grow. It’s a truly vulnerable double performance that under Barnard’s direction feels honest, heartfelt and imbued with a type of romantic magic not normally afforded these types of characters with these types of backgrounds. 

I do love a regional romance, especially when it presents the realities of these areas with candour, empathy and affection. Keep ’em, coming, please. And a shout out to Clio Barnard; a northern woman after my own cinematic heart.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic.

@HannaFlint 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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