Seeing Asghar Farhadi's A Separation become the darling of last year's awards circuit was as rewarding as it was unexpected. Few could have imagined that this Iranian tale of domestic strife spinning out of control would strike such a chord with audiences around the world, but few films in recent years have been as deserving of such acclaim as Farhadi's masterpiece. But we might only be seeing the real benefit of that attention now, as the director's previous film About Elly – which I first saw in 2009 – has finally received a UK release on the back of A Separation's Oscar success. The good news is that this long overdue release is richly deserved, for About Elly is every bit as impressive, compelling and morally complex as its successor, and it proves beyond any doubt that A Separation was no fluke.
About Elly is another film about secrets and lies, another film about moral and ethical decisions in which our loyalty towards the characters is constantly being questioned, but it doesn't begin that way. Farhadi takes his time revealing his hand, and About Elly's first half is played loose and light. A group of upper-class friends are heading to the beach for the weekend, and from the way they interact we can tell that they are long-time companions, who are comfortable in each other's company. The exception to this is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), who has been invited to join the party by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) in the hope that she can be fixed up with her single friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). The well-meaning but misguided Sepideh has concocted this plan without the knowledge of anyone else in the group; the first instance in the film of information being withheld, but not the last.
Although it initially seems a little aimless, the effect of this opening section of the film is to let us spend time with these characters, get to know them and observe their group dynamics. It allows us to develop a sense of attachment with them, which is why the mid-film twist that ruptures the whole narrative has such a devastating impact. To say any more about what exactly this twist entails would be a crime, as experiencing the fallout from this unexpected narrative shift firsthand is one of the many pleasures About Elly offers. Farhadi handles the abrupt tonal switch with consummate skill and grace, and we remain riveted as the easygoing drama we've been watching suddenly takes on the urgency of a thriller.
In the second half of About Elly, half-truths and outright lies continue to pile up, as Sepideh and her anxious friends only exacerbate the terrible situation they find themselves in by attempting to cover up the truth. Farhadi's screenplay is a marvel of storytelling and moral complexity. His ability to pull us into a situation that poses such thorny questions and to consistently alter our perceptions of the situations and the characters is just as potent here as it was in A Separation. Farhadi's characters are never painted as being right or wrong – they are just ordinary people trying to cope with things as best they can, making decision with no knowledge of what consequences they will bring upon themselves.
At the centre of it all is Golshifteh Farahani, giving an extraordinary, emotionally draining performance as Sepideh, who remains steadfast in her belief that everything she is doing is for the best, even as the rest of the group stands against her. Farhadi is a fascinating figure among Iranian filmmakers; he makes films about modern, progressive, independent characters, but they still exist within a society bound by its particular codes and traditions. On one level, About Elly can be seen as a film criticising Ian's culture of deception, but such political readings are always kept as subtext in Farhadi's films, and they are above all else, gripping and affecting human dramas. Viewers looking at the releases coming out of Hollywood may despair at the lack of intelligent, compassionate, universally appealing dramas being produced, and may suspect that filmmakers have given up on discerning adult audiences. But these films do exist, you just have to look a little further afield in order to find them, and right now, not many directors are doing it better than Asghar Farhadi.