Jewish filmmaker James Kent looks at an embattled Hamburg circa 1946 through the gaze of a period romance adapted from a 2013 novel of the same name.
The Aftermath stars Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, and Alexander Skarsgard in what wrings some drama out of much of which isn’t that convincing. Forgiveness and reconciliation are finally of most importance in what isn’t delving beneath an attractive production, particularly in the costume department.
After World War II’s Allied victory there’s much rebuilding and ‘cleansing’ to do for Clarke’s Capt. Lewis Morgan having requisitioned the stately manse of a handsome German architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgard) who lives there with his surly teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), but they’ll have the less desirable quarters. Knightley’s comely wife of Lewis, Rachael, isn’t keen on this relocation given the loss of their child in an air raid (the film opens with what left the metropolis tattered in the summer of 1943).
Early on the narrative especially has an episodic feel as a brittle Rachael becomes more impassioned as she gets to know Stefan who also has experienced tragedy at the hands of the Allies (but he claims not to have been a Nazi sympathizer though Rachael figures out the origin of a discolored spot on the wall). Another strand includes Flora’s interaction with an insurgent-like sect which may have resonance in a post 9/11 world. Yet, the screenplay by Anna Woodhouse and Joe Shrapnel isn’t able to provide any depth or complexity to potential peril of domestic hazards of war.
Yes, the effects on characters can lead to the more memorable seductive situations whether after a dinner party or up in the attic as Knightley can definitely be alluring in a gold silk dress, akin to the emerald dress worn during a pivotal sequence in Joe Wright’s Atonement. Yet, the actress doesn’t resonate with the same stirring subtleties as in that period film or the recent Colette. Her studied prudish demeanor doesn’t gel well with Skarsgard who unfortunately can’t do more than look fine and brood while in a cardigan (or for a certain crowd without it). Only Clarke and to a lesser extent Thiemann make the greater impression partly because the former has more to do than just a standard cuckolded husband routine.
Essentially, The Aftermath is firmly content in being a bit too awkward and frustrating rather than a contemplative, challenging study that can be more than a contrived costume drama.