Sun. May 29th, 2022

Fellini had Rome; Almodóvar has Madrid. For Clio Barnard, the muse lives in Bradford. Beginning with 2010’s electric, experimental The Arbor, the director has set a string of absorbing films in the post-industrial northern English city. The latest, Ali & Avacan feel like her most conventional, but convention need not be a dirty word when the result is this rich and articulate.

While Bradford stars again, the first clues to the characters come with interiors. For widowed teaching assistant Ava (Claire Rushbrook), work and home life are dominated by children, even with her eldest son nudging into adulthood. But for seemingly happy-go-lucky landlord Ali (Adeel Akhtar), living space is shrinking. Separated from his gentle, intelligent wife but still uneasily cohabiting, he retreats into a basement man-cave with his music and memories of ’90s raves.

A third home brings these quietly lonely souls together – a house Ali owns but lets to a Slovak couple whose daughter he one day drops at Ava’s school. That single brief encounter sparks a hesitant relationship. It also captures the film in a nutshell. Where others would confect a meet-cute, Barnard trusts the magic of the everyday. While race has a role in the story – Ava’s background is Irish, Ali’s Pakistani – its reality is nuanced. And in Britain’s youngest city, kids get everywhere: Ali and Ava are only middle-aged but still the oldest people on screen, at the point of life when the past can feel like all you are.

The script duly draws out each of their secret histories, the natural plot points of enough years on the planet. (The few weak spots come when it lunges too obviously for drama.) The actors are terrific throughout. Akhtar and Rushbrook give crystalline performances, their characters looking at each other and seeing the chance to be their own whole selves.

★★★★ ☆

In UK cinemas from March 4

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