Clio Barnard brings signature social realism to romcom-adjacent Ali & Ava

The Arbor director’s new film looks beyond stereotypes of working-class Britain to tell the story of people getting by

Clio Barnard’s studies of West Yorkshire have won her a reputation for sombre reflection. The Arbor, an oblique take on the late Andrea Dunbar’s life, was among the more troubling British masterpieces of the century. The Selfish Giant, a hit at Cannes in 2013, was almost as celebrated and almost as unsettling. Who would have expected her to deliver a romantic comedy?

Ali & Ava isn’t quite that. But Barnard’s fine new film does follow the shape of a romcom. Ali, an amiable landlord from the Pakistani community, and Ava, a classroom assistant of Irish descent, meet cute(ish) and start a relationship. We shan’t spoil the end, but some familiar structures are encountered.

“Yes, on some level it is that,” she says. “It is also a sort of musical. It is a social-realist musical that uses diegetic music.”

Lest Barnardians fear the approach of Katherine Heigl, we should stress that she treats the story with characteristic integrity. Adeel Akhtar, a familiar face from Four Lions, The Big Sick and much more, makes a bumbling charmer of Ali. Claire Rushbrook, among the UK’s busiest actors, teases out Ava’s tragedies with great subtlety. The Bradford locations are integral to the film’s off-centre appeal. The couple’s shared passion for music helps the relationship through rocky patches. As tends to be the case, Barnard based her story on real people.


“Rio is who inspired the character of Ava,” Barnard explains. “I met her whilst I was making The Selfish Giant. And someone called Moey Hassan inspired the character of Ali. I met him while I was making The Arbor. As well as being a DJ and a landlord he is also an actor.”

We have a certain expectation of movie landlords. I am not sure I have ever seen a positive portrayal of such a person in a social-realist project. Ali is a pal to his tenants and their children.

“Well, I did see some reviewer saying Ken Loach would never have made Ali a landlord,” she says amiably. “I can understand the comment. It was about being true to Moey. It was important the way Moey identified with the kids within that family – the way he was genuinely kind and helpful in terms of helping the family settle. Because he recognised the parallel with his own family’s life when he was little. So that was the reason.”

Barnard speaks to me from the shed at the bottom of her garden in Kent. She has lived there for some years, but her heart remains tethered to West Yorkshire.

“Well, I love it,” she agrees. “That’s one thing. I think it’s a really beautiful place. Bradford had its heart ripped out basically when the textile industry collapsed. And it has suffered a lot because of it. The people I’ve got to know there are really brilliant, wonderful people.”

Ali & Ava does not paint Bradford as a particularly racist place. The couple certainly encounter prejudice, but the prevailing atmosphere is one of messy co-operation. People get by. This goes counter to the stereotypes that the media have thrown up since Brexit. (Fifty-four percent voted to leave in that city.) Believe the gloomier news segments and you’d conclude the English nation had twisted furiously in upon itself.

“I think there was a lot of divisiveness amongst politicians who wanted to exploit something,” Barnard says. “There was a lot of that going on. I think there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty that was exploited. Part of what I was witnessing amongst people I got to know well – specifically Rio and Moey – was actually incredible kindness. Something Adeel and I talked about was joy as an act of resistance. It felt important to make something that counted as that.”

Clio grew up in Yorkshire with a lecturer as a dad and an artist as a mother. She attended Newcastle Polytechnic and then moved on to a post-graduate diploma at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. She is, thus, one of those film-makers – see also Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Johnson – who approached feature film-making via the visual arts. She speaks of “evolving” towards cinema. She did a bit of painting, sculpture and printmaking. She stumbled into film while making records of her charcoal drawing. “I got very seduced by celluloid,” she says.

The Arbor, commissioned by an organisation called Art Angel, found actors lip-synching to audio of Andrea Dunbar and her family and friends talking through that playwright’s troubled life. On release in 2010, the film became a critical sensation and established Barnard as one of her generation’s most innovative storytellers. It also worked as deserved tribute to Dunbar, who died at just 29 in 1990.

“I was amazed and of course delighted,” she says of the response. “It’s a tough story. So delighted feels like a kind of funny word to use. It was an important story and the Tories had just got in. It looked at three generations of one family in one place. But it shed a light on a very marginalised group of people – and the fallout of a post-Thatcher, post-industrial north. People needed to hear it.”

Barnard has made the best of that breakthrough success. The Selfish Giant and Ali & Ava both premiered to great acclaim. Now, she moves on to a very different challenge. She is the sole director on Apple TV’s glossy adaptation of Sarah Perry’s much-admired Gothic novel The Essex Serpent. Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston star. The world expects.

“There is only so much I can say at this point,” she says. “But, yes, that feels like a completely different job. It’s a different beast. That’s all I can say.”

Some worry that the talent is all going in that direction – towards “event” TV. Can theatrical exhibition survive?

“It’s perhaps unrealistic of me, but I think people will be flooding back to see films,” she says, laughing. “Look at vinyl. Vinyl survived. Vinyl has soul. Cinema has got soul. That’s what we all need in this disjointed materialistic world.”

Ali & Ava opens on March 4th