For reasons I’ll never quite understand, a small section of the British film industry has been obsessed for roughly 70 years with telling love stories that take place during and after World War II. The British certainly felt the direct impact of the war more than most of the Allies, and because of that tensions and emotions were high. And perhaps as a result, finding a connection with another person—even if that person wasn’t your spouse or significant other—meant the difference between suffering alone and keeping one’s sanity as bombs dropped all around you.
Set in 1946 in Germany, director James Kent’s (Testament of Youth) The Aftermath follows the path of Rachel Morgan (Keira Knightley), who moves from London to Hamburg to be with her officer husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), one of the men put in charge of rebuilding this flattened city where bodies are still being dug out of rubble that seems to cover the entire nation. We find out that the Morgans lost a young son during a bombing raid while under Rachel’s care, an event that has forever scarred her and placed upon her a level of guilt she will likely never live down. And while Lewis doesn’t blame her for their son’s death, she suspects he quietly does.
As was the custom at the time, British officers took over the house of a German citizen during his assignment, and in the case of the Morgans, they move into the spacious dwelling of a German architect/widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teen daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), who deeply resents that her father is allowing this couple to kick them out of their house. Feeling some amount of pity for the father-daughter, Lewis allows them to stay in the top floor of the large home, much to Rachael’s resentment. The Aftermath certainly has an intriguing set up, even if the payoff isn’t quite as interesting.
Because the rule in films like this is that the two most attractive people must be attracted to each other, it’s only a matter of time before the lonely wife begins to fall for the handsome, brooding German, and not just in a physical way; the two actually start to fall in love, forcing the already guilty Rachael into a real mental head-spin. At the center of the film is an examination of the ways grief can bring people together while tearing others apart, but that’s handled sloppily by director Kent and I never truly bought the emotion that we’re meant to sense between the adulterous couple.
Even stranger, there’s a subplot involving the daughter falling for a former member of the Hitler youth who still believes in his Nazi ways and gets her involved in a plot to assassinate Lewis and other outsiders treating Germans poorly. The entire film could have existed quite nicely without this storyline at all; it’s a foolish distraction that goes virtually nowhere and only serves to make us despise the daughter when we’re meant to understand the pain she feels at missing her mother. Instead, she comes across as a reckless brat.
There are no bad performances in The Aftermath; the film’s biggest issues exist in its contrived and familiar screenplay. Knightley is actually quite strong in full-on struggling mode. And Skarsgård shows us a sensitive side that I don’t believe I’ve seen him play on screen before this. The problems are that both actors are stuck in this precious, fragile story that doesn’t allow them to excel or really shine as emotionally beaten-down souls. It wouldn’t have taken much to improve The Aftermath, but as it stands, it’s certainly watchable if not impressive.
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