Based on Rhidian Brook’s novel of the same name, The Aftermath opens with an aerial view of the bombing of Hamburg, a campaign that razed the German city. Followed by shock-inducing shots of the dissipated city in the wake of the air raids, the film almost manages to fool the audience—if only for a second—that The Aftermath will be anything more than a gaudy melodrama.
Set in Hamburg in 1946—five months after the end of World War II—The Aftermath follows Rachel Morgan (Keira Knightley) as she is reunited with her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British officer tasked with rebuilding the ruined city. But as they settle into their temporary home, a sprawling mansion requisitioned by the British government, Rachel makes a shocking discovery: Her husband has allowed the house’s previous tenants, the widowed Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), to reside in the attic rather than move to the camps. With Rachel still reeling from the loss of her own son at the hand of a German bombing, as well as the distance she feels in her relationship with her husband, the charged atmosphere in the house leads to a torrid love affair between Rachel and Lubert.
Despite outclassing her material, Knightley shines as the distraught Rachel Morgan, playing the stiff-upper-lipped Englishwoman with practiced finesse. Audience members are in for a treat, as they watch Knightley evolve on screen. She tries and fails to mask the grief she feels over her son, wringing out her (admittedly hollow) character for all she’s worth.
Rachel’s relationship with Lubert cannot be held to such high esteem, which forgoes emotional depth in favor of sexual heat. Their love affair seems inevitable, both encompassed in a shared mourning neither can seem to give words to, but not for a lack of chemistry, Knightley and Skarsgård offer little beyond aesthetic appeal. Despite this misfire, the cast itself leaves little to be wanting. Lewis plays a believable, albeit emotionally distant, husband who shows a more vulnerable side as the film progresses. Thiemann does a decent enough job as Freda, approaching the role with enough bitterness to appear credible.
While James Kent’s film is both beautifully shot and begrudgingly well-acted, The Aftermath is almost criminal in its underutilization of its polarizing backdrop of post-war Germany. Despite having ample space to explore the psychological dissonance between the victor and vanquished, as well as pose serious questions about guilt and responsibility, Kent wastes the movie’s potential on a shoddy and rushed romance. The post-war setting is never unpacked beyond being mentioned in brief passing by Lewis’ work, of which the audience is never given a clear picture. Freda’s burgeoning relationship with the Nazi sympathizer shows signs of potential, but is ultimately exploited for shock value. In another scene where Stephen’s loyalties are questioned, we are told that he wasn’t a member of the Nazi party and the issue is simply left there.
Coming from Kent, director of the 2015 British war film Testament of Youth that was largely successful by comparison, this film seems uncharacteristically misguided. A period piece that tries and fails to be something more, The Aftermath is little more than a tepid love affair set against a gauzy backdrop. Despite all the visual beauty and A-list actors it needed to succeed, the film reduces its incredible source material to longing glances and corny melodrama.
Featured Image by Fox Searchlight Pictures