It’s 1946. The Second World War is over and Germany lies in ruins. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley), a British woman still struggling with the death of her son, has come to Hamburg to be reunited with her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke). As a top-ranking officer in the British Army, he has been tasked with helping to rebuild the city that the Allied Forces bombed into submission, and his title allows him to take ownership of a German’s house for the remainder of his stay. Much to Rachael’s surprise, Lewis has chosen a large mansion owned by a widowed architect, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter, and he’s also allowed them to stay in the grand property. Suffice to say, the atmosphere is charged with emotion, a situation made all the more fraught by Rachael and Stefan’s blooming attraction.
Much like director James Kent’s last film, Testament of Youth, The Aftermath focuses on the search for emotional and romantic attachment amid the chaos of war. His sinfully underseen adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir wore its David Lean inspirations proudly on its sleeve and kept the intimacy of its source material without ever diluting the history surrounding it. The Aftermath falls short of those lofty goals, although its decidedly old-school approach will certainly win over plenty of viewers. Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, the film is a sturdy romantic drama that has the decency to gift its central trio of actors with material worthy of their talents. Skarsgård makes for an appealing leading men (surprise!) and conveys much of the frustration a man in his position would be forced to bottle up effectively. Jason Clarke has the most layered arc of the story, a grieving father unable to close the gap between himself and his wife as he deals with the conflicted feelings of being on the winning side of a war while living among the ruins he helped to create. He is the epitome of the good old British stiff upper lip and how toxic that mentality truly is. Knightley, an actress who has grown into a dependable presence with her steely fragility, keeps the entire story grounded, even as it goes a tad saccharine. Now there’s an actress who we certainly owe an apology after years of doubting her talents.
The problem with the film, or at least the main one that stops this from being anything more than just good, is that it doesn’t seem all that interested in the aspects of its story that are the most fascinating. This is a period of history that is seldom seen in English language film, dealing with the aftermath of a war that is typically clouded in glorious victory for those on the right side of it. A chance to see how real Germans lived after the bombs finished falling and the conflict that could inspire in a British soldier forced to deal with it could have made for a thorny but utterly necessary drama. The same goes for a minor subplot in which Lubert’s daughter Freda begins to fraternize with a man still loyal to the Nazis and is at risk of being radicalized herself. Perhaps a more classical romantic drama was not the platform for such narratives, hence their side-lining, but those moments that abrasively rub up against our preconceptions of this time and the people involved are quickly smoothed over and resolved in ways that feel cheap. The radicalization of Freda, in particular, feels poorly resolved and thought out given that her seduction to the cause comes mostly from her having a crush on some dude (and yes, the Rolfe/Liesl comparisons were not hard to notice). When the love triangle kicks in, it’s with clumsy quickness and inexplicable motivation. The need for two broken people to cling to one another for no other reason beyond the need for a life-raft is intriguing enough, but in The Aftermath, it seems to happen simply because the screenwriters wanted it to.
Kent is on firmer ground when he is able to luxuriate in the golden age romantic mood of the film. It’s beautifully shot, with cinematography by Franz Lustig that contrasts the icy Winter snow with the concrete graveyard of Hamburg to the warm shades of dusk that light at least two pretty hot sex scenes. A lot of time is spent on Knightley’s face, capturing her increasingly futile attempts to hide her pain and the conflicts that have begun to tear her conscience apart. In one particularly memorable scene, shot in one take, she shares precious good memories about her late son then crumbles from the catharsis of the moment, and Knightley just kills it. There’s a reason directors keep casting her in period dramas: She’s so at home in those times and with the sort of acting. it’s a shame, then, that Kent often feels unwilling to trust these actors he clearly has such respect for, as the full-on weepy strings score kicks in at unnecessary moments for maximum poignancy.
The Aftermath could have made for one hell of a mini-series. With the freedom of time in its corner, it could have given more breathing room to those tangled subplots and greater space for these emotions to play out. As it is, the film is a respectable enough affair with much to enjoy, particularly from its three leads, but the defiantly old-school nature of it doesn’t quite click like it needs to. This film is a proud throwback, another story that David Lean could have gone (assuming that the film industry of his time would allow such a narrative), but in 2019, our classic tales need something more modern to keep us intrigued.
The Aftermath premieres in the UK this Friday and in the USA on March 15th.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Fox Searchlight