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Cambridge Film Festival 2021: interview with Claire Rushbrook from Ali and Ava film

The Cambridge Film Festival opened on Thursday (November 18) with a brilliant new film starring Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar.

Ali and Ava is the gentle story from director Clio Barnard of an unlikely couple meeting and falling in love on a Bradford estate and explores the themes of happiness and belonging.

Ava, played by Claire Rushbrook, is a lost soul trying to emerge from the shadow left by her former, now deceased, husband.

Adeel plays former DJ Ali who is coming to terms with the breakdown of his marriage.

Described as a northern High Fidelity, the film shows the couple gradually getting to know each other by sharing their favourite music.

Claire, who has recently appeared in the films Ammonite and Enola Holmes spoke with the Cambridge Independent ahead of the festival.

Ali and Ava starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook. Pic: Altitude (53176358)
Ali and Ava starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook. Pic: Altitude (53176358)

Your character, Ava, has had quite a difficult background. She’s widowed but her husband wasn’t very nice to her. And her kids don’t want her to date again. Tell me about her.

This is a good example of the nuance and complexity of this character that she’s written. Her husband had died a year before. In fact they were separated when he died. The reason being that, sadly, it was an abusive relationship. And, her children who are now grown up perhaps aren’t aware of how bad it was, and everyone's grieving as well.

So for Ava, it’s a very complex scenario where she's not expecting for a minute to form an intimate friendship relationship with anyone else. She’s actually perfectly happy and capable, and just getting on with life. She’s working as a teaching assistant. She’s doing childcare for grandchildren to support their kids just getting on with things. And then this light and small joy centres her life and we get to see her tussling with letting that into her life given all her obligations. And not least the feelings that she has about love and men and relationships. So yeah, it’s a beautiful character to play, really really nuanced.

Who is Ava?

Ava is just an ordinary middle-aged woman with grandchildren who lives in Bradford in Yorkshire. She’s a really well-rounded, complex character. In the film we get an intimate insight into what happens when ordinary people find a connection with someone else. It shows big stories happen when, from the outside, nothing's happening other than two people meeting and finding a really joyful connection.

Is it good to see a different sort of character leading a film?

It’s so nice. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read the script. It sounds like a very simple story, but it’s so refreshing to read stories about ordinary people going through extraordinary things within the confines of their life and it’s a love story where we really are invited into the inner obstacles and struggles and hurdles that each of these characters give themselves. They wrestle with allowing this joyful, falling in love to happen. And it is a really positive, uplifting, funny, tender film. I’m really thrilled that story’s been told.

Do you think that love stories are too rare in film at the moment, especially with the focus on superhero movies?

Ali and Ava starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook. Pic: Altitude (53176362)
Ali and Ava starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook. Pic: Altitude (53176362)

I definitely think that love stories about people like this are very few and far between. It’s particularly galling as you get older, where you sort of get the creeping sense that those stories are no longer themes that are valid for people your age or people who don't subscribe to Hollywood notions of beauty and yet all of us have actually got these stories going on in our lives. There may not be car chases and CGI sequences, but they’re big stories and Clio Barnard, our writer-director, really crafted a beautiful story.

It’s inspired by real people that she met when she was working up in Bradford on previous films. She works very closely with the community. This is her third film that was set there and although she uses professional actors, she also uses local people and certainly uses local actors as well and non actors and has forged really strong connections and gained a lot of trust from different communities as a consequence of that. There’s no sense of this being a worthy film, it’s just complex and beautiful.

Do you think Clio Barnard had a particular message in mind with the film?

I’ve heard her say that it was very important to her to show communities getting along that it would be easy to label as potentially at odds with each other or divisive. And I think she’s referring to sort of a national trend for sort of ramping up conflict and it’s so important to her to show these communities that she'd been welcomed to be a part of, and to share the kindness and the acceptance and the goodness of people there.

Do you think the film says something about the difficulties of dating in midlife?

The joy of this particular story is that Clio (Barnard, director) has created a very believable chance meeting between the characters of Ali and Ava. He’s an ex DJ, but now a landlord and is giving the daughter of one of his tenants a lift to school because he has a good relationship with his tenants. And the little girl is the child that Ava does one to one support with.

There is this meeting with the little girl, Ali and Ava in the playground on a very rainy day. And there are certainly no swelling violins or cliched ‘eyes across the room’ at all. It's just two people starting off politely chatting and then actually quite quickly bonding over music. Because music is a massive part of the film. So there are some very funny conversations about the difference in their musical taste during that first car journey, and that is the springboard for them getting to know each other.

Music does play a big role in their relationships. Have you ever made a mixtape for someone yourself?

I'm sure I did. I said, I certainly can remember receiving them and them being handed over with the grave responsibility of taking someone’s heart and soul into your hands as they pass you the mix tape. It’s so flattering for someone to make you a mix tape, I can remember. Girlfriends of mine, good mates, we would do that, you know, back when we were in our 20s. And, there’s an echo of that in this although there's no mix tapes being passed around. But they do learn to appreciate and enjoy each other’s music. It’s actually quite profound between them. I think it symbolises the sharing of trust and vulnerability between them

Don’t Ali and Ava have wildly different musical tastes?

Claire Rushbrook (53176360)
Claire Rushbrook (53176360)

Yes, she likes country and folk and he likes techno. I mean, he’s an ex-dance DJ. I’m woefully out of touch with these banging tunes in the film. But they start to enjoy each other’s music and there's a lovely scene where the characters are listening to their own music in their headphones, but then they swap and Ali encourages Eva to go with it and enjoy the music and they dance.

What was it like working with Adeel?

I loved working with Adeel. I have long admired his work and knew him to be a kind guy and modest guy and funny. And he was very open and very easy to trust. And with the director Clio as well, when you’re telling an intimate story like that, it’s imperative that it is told honestly, and in a very naturalistic way. You really did have to sort of depend on each other, to feel sort of safe and secure and have trust in each other and we absolutely did.

I believe you are now part of the Doctor Who fandom after playing Ida Scott, have you become involved with that?

I’ve been a bit rubbish at it. I was very honoured to be asked to be in it and I remain very proud to have been a part of it but I'm not a Doctor Who expert or or historical die-hard fan and so I often come a cropper when fans ask me questions. I often feel that I’m letting them down slightly.

What are you working on next?

Next spring there is a drama on the BBC called Sherwood which is a present-day drama where something tragic happens within the community. It is set in Nottingham and in the aftermath of a terrible crime it looks at how the police approach solving that crime and how it opens old wounds from the miners’ strike. It looks really closely at this community and it’s fragility. It stars David Morrissey and Robert Glenister and Lesley Manville.

I’m also doing a play at the National Theatre that’s called Middle. And it's by a writer called David Eldridge who wrote a very successful play called Beginning. So, that will be very exciting.

Was your work badly affected by the pandemic?

It was dreadful. I’m painfully aware that they're in different definitions of dreadful for the past few years. And certainly I feel very blessed that me and my family are lucky enough to have stayed well and not to have been bereaved, which is obviously the main thing. But our particular industry decision just shut down. And the restarting has been slow.

How do you feel about the film opening the Cambridge Film Festival?

I'm just delighted that the film's opening the festival. It is a really prestigious honor.. It’s my local film festival because I live in Hertfordshire and I've been banging on about this film to my family for a while. In fact, we finished filming in December 2019. So it has been a couple of years of me just boring them about it.

Book tickets

Ali and Ava is showing at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge on Thursday, November 18 at 8.30pm and Monday, November 22 at 8.30pm. Visit https://www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk/film/ali-ava

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