While Keira Knightley and cast give off some elegant looks, this post-WWII costume drama floats passively along the surface of its subject.
In her predilection for period pieces, Keira Knightley has actually done a pretty impressive job diversifying her costume drama résumé across countries and centuries—from a Russian countess in the 1870s to a French novelist in the 1900s to a plucky member of the English landed gentry in the 1790s to several films set against the milieu of the Second World War. In The Aftermath she adds a new country and (at least by a matter of several crucial months) a new era to the list. The film is set in postwar Germany in 1945, five months after Allied victory there. More specifically, it’s set in Hamburg, a city devastated by Allied air raids and subsequently handed over to Britain as part of the Allies’ division of Germany into four occupied zones. It’s an intriguing new lens on a war that has been well explored in cinema.
In practice, however, The Aftermath’s story of simmering sexual tension and lustful outbursts unfolding in a glamorous manor feels an awful lot like Knightley’s WWII-adjacent drama Atonement. And the masterful tonal construction of the latter doesn’t do the former many favors. The Aftermath is an elegant looking movie that’s inelegant in its control of tension and tone.
Knightley stars as Rachael Morgan, a stoically brittle British woman who journeys to Hamburg to join her military husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), who’s been put in charge of rebuilding the city. Having lived through the Blitz, Rachael has nothing but contempt for the entire German nation and all of its inhabitants. Lewis, meanwhile, is steeped in the moral shades of grey of war. While his military colleagues work to brutally stamp out any festering Nazi sentiments among the locals, Lewis is sympathetic to the everyday Germans who now live in the squalor of refugee camps when they’re not working to dig up the unaccounted bodies of the more than 40,000 people killed in the air raids.
After he and Rachael move into a requisitioned manor, Lewis argues the moral thing to do is to let the German owners stay on in the attic, rather than kicking them out of the house entirely. Thus, Adonic architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his prickly teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) become uneasy roommates to the Lewises, much to Rachael’s chagrin. Soon, however, her icy tension with Stefan grows into something more much fiery.
The Aftermath is an elegant looking movie that’s inelegant in its control of tension and tone.
On paper, there’s so much about The Aftermath that should work. The film links the question of how we process trauma on a societal level to how we process it on a personal one. London and Hamburg are two cities linked by their experiences with destructive air raids, just as Rachael and Stefan are two people linked by personal loss. His wife was killed in a bombing as was her young son Michael, whose death caused an emotional rift in her marriage to Lewis. In practice, however, the film never quite finds the spark it needs to bring those complex connections to life.
Early on, The Aftermath raises potent questions of complacency and complicity. Stefan was never an official member of the Nazi party, yet his home, like all stately German homes, bears an outline on the wall from where his portrait of Hitler once hung. Unfortunately, those intriguingly thorny ideas are soon dropped in favor of a love triangle that never gets the emotional depth it deserves either. A metaphor involving a piano is clunkier than the classical music that gets plunked out on it.
Director James Kent has created a film about subtleties and subtext that’s lacking in both, which is where the comparisons to Atonement hurt it the most. Adapting Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name, screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse keep their characters too surface, particularly in a clumsy subplot involving Freda’s romance with a teen Nazi fugitive. In how quickly Rachael and Stefan jump from hatred to passion, it seems more like the characters are moving through the preordained motions of a love triangle than living complexly fraught lives. An effective ending reveals The Aftermath was intended to have more emotional complexities bubbling beneath the surface than is always apparent during the film itself.
In the end, however, The Aftermath succeeds mostly at delivering erotic thrills and the pleasure of watching Knightley and Skarsgård wear the hell out of some gorgeous 1940s fashion. That’s not for nothing. It just feels like a film about grief, trauma, war, and Nazism should have more to say.