Sixth film helmed by Ken Loach and penned by Paul Laverty, and their third set in Scotland’s Strathclyde region, cross-cultural love story “Ae Fond Kiss” has a biz-as-usual feel. Pic sports team’s trademark deft liberal-humanist treatment of hot-button issues filmed with humor, visual panache and telling use of detail. However, the issues’ bones poke through dramatic skin more here, and Loach coaches less than outstanding perfs from non-pro cast. Pre-sold to territories with strong followings for helmer, pic’s timely themes and uncharacteristically upbeat ending could bring the kiss of better-than-usual B.O. despite minor flaws.
Glasgow-born Casim Khan (model Atta Yaqub making his acting debut), like many second-generation Asian men in Blighty, lives with a foot in two very different cultures. Loyal to his Punjabi-born family who run a corner shop and compliant with their arranged marriage plans for him, the Scots-accented Casim also wants to be a DJ and run his own nightclub with friend Hammid (Shy Ramsan).
But then this Romeo meets his Juliet in the smart, pretty and Irish Roisin (experienced thesp Eva Birthistle), his kid sister Tahara’s (Shabana Bakhsh) schoolteacher. Some fairly hot sex scenes, unusual for Loach, establish the star-crossed lovers’ combustible chemistry. However, first two reels don’t explain why these two feel they’re so right for each other outside the bedroom, especially since Roisin mentions a failed early marriage that foundered on lack of common ground.
Pic feels in a hurry to get to the conflict-filled second act, in which Casim tells his family he wants to break off his engagement to first cousin Jasmine (Sunna Mirza). His father Tariq (Ahmad Riaz) is already furious that Tahara wants to study journalism at Edinburgh University, only 35 miles away. Casim’s defiance results not just in ostracism from his immediate family, but in a broken engagement for sister Rukhsana (Ghizala Avan) to good-catch Amar (Pasha Bocarie), another arranged match.
Ensuring the Muslims don’t come off as the only ones hidebound by dogma and tradition, Laverty’s script cleverly jimmies in a subplot in which Roisin has to get a signature of approval from her parish priest (magnificently played by Glaswegian comedian Gerard Kelly) in order to secure a permanent post at the Catholic school where she teaches.
Subject of mixed-race relationships has been handled with more humor and crowd-pleasing lightness in “East Is East,” “Bend It Like Beckham,” no end of Blighty soap operas such as “EastEnders” and “Coronation Street,” and even in comedy programs such as the all-Asian starrer “Goodness Gracious Me.”
What “Ae Fond Kiss” brings to the table is a grittier treatment than any of the above, emphasizing how much more acute the divisions are between cultures post-9/11. But the flatness of several of the key perfs badly lets down this promising material. The central lovers are fine, total newcomer Yaqub admirably holding his own against Birthistle, while young thesp Bakhsh as his little sis has a feisty presence.
Rest of Khan family, all non-pros apart from Shamshad Akhtar as the matriarch, vary between flat and outright wood-paneled. Loach fared much better with young cast of “Sweet Sixteen,” and Peter Mullan’s extraordinary perf in “My Name Is Joe.”
Tech credits are filled by many regular Loach collaborators, such as composer George Fenton, production designer Martin Johnson, and most importantly crack lenser Barry Ackroyd, who works miracles with natural light and evokes great sensuality in the love scenes and blue-lit clubbing sequences.
Sound by Ray Beckett is a little muddy. Moreover, given Glaswegian dialect is hard to grasp for even English auds, pic might have easier time with subtitled prints, both abroad and in Blighty where “Sweet Sixteen” benefited from titling for wider distribution.