TIFF REVIEW: ‘Ali & Ava’ (2021) Blends Romance and Realism with Mixed Results

A woman and man outside with hills in the distance behind them. The woman has windswept blonde hair and is smiling, while wearing a leopard print top and bluish-grey jacket. The man has a beard and wears a beanie and dark coat, while looking at the woman and smiling.
Image courtesy of BBC Film

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“It seems the film is unsure as to how to balance its narrative’s drive for both romance and realism.”

As a filmmaker and an artist, Clio Barnard has always been tactile and earthy — every scene almost having the feel of waking up slightly earlier than usual, creating a visual and sonic richness. Barnard’s more conventionally dramatic work, Dark River for example, takes this feeling and attempts to attach it to lives that blend realism and melodrama. This mode has somewhat of a history in British television drama. From Coronation Street to Emmerdale, British soap operas often strive to create melodrama grounded in realism. Barnard’s latest film Ali and Ava is perhaps her clearest attempt yet to take this combination and blend with it an air of poetry, but what the audience is left with is mixed results.

Ali and Ava is a film based around two people who find it difficult to fall in love. Ali is a local landlord who is financially secure, but currently going through the breakdown of his marriage due to tragic circumstances. Ava is a teaching assistant who currently looks after her youngest daughter, son, and grandson, as well as checking in on her other children when she gets the chance. Her life is hectic, and has the shadow of financial worries hanging over it. Though their lives are worlds apart, the two fall for each other. A touchstone for their relationship is music, and this aspect is where Barnard’s sonic strengths truly come to life, using different genres and blending them to mirror the character’s own experiences.

One of the key issues with the film, and in some regard Barnard’s work as a whole is the way in which class is portrayed. This film shows Ali and Ava having different experiences, while also inhabiting the same class, or a comparable class. This is somewhat touched on in Ali’s jokes about the part of town that Ava is from, but given the rather large disparity in situation this doesn’t feel like to gives enough depth to this key difference between them — especially for a film defined by differences. This is not to say the film doesn’t work. Ali is perhaps the most likeable landlord ever put to film, and his romance with Ava is genuinely moving, but this stretch feels one too far.

The film’s story, though filled with watertight characters, often betrays itself, hitting melodramatic beats at the wrong time. It is a shame as the characters really are lovable, and Barnard creates a world that feels completely lived in and authentic. Unfortunately though, it seems the film is unsure as to how to balance its narrative’s drive for both romance and realism.

Ali and Ava is a film that brings Barnard’s usual visual and sonic flair, but it falls slightly short of the mark by not tackling the signifiers inherent in the story’s themes. It is a film that is at times a pleasure to watch, and it is always nice to see a film wearing its soap opera influences on its sleeve; however, it does manage to hold itself back from getting tied up in its own subjects.

Dir: Clio Barnard

Prod: BBC Films, BFI Film Fund, Moonspun Films

Cast: Adeel Akhtar, Claire Rushbrook, Ellora Torchia

Release Date: 2021