Keira Knightley Imbues the Epic WWII Love Story “The Aftermath” With Pain and Intimacy
Those expecting the post-WWII love story The Aftermath to resemble 1942’s Casablanca are bound to be disappointed. Equally frustrated will be those audiences hoping for an erotic thriller, something in the vein of Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 spy tale Black Book. The Aftermath trailers teased such things, what with the smoldering presence of stars Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård, but it’s less a love story and more a drama about depression. The film that The Aftermath most resembles might be 1988’s The Accidental Tourist. Like that William Hurt vehicle, this film focuses on a parent who’s lost a child and their attempt to overcome the trauma and rejoin society as a functioning human being. That may not be all that sexy, but it makes for a very moving two hours at the Cineplex.
The optimal word in The Aftermath is healing. The story takes place five months after WWII has ended, and the Allies are trying to patch up a Germany in ruin. Unfortunately, the military is finding the task to almost be as arduous as the war was itself. Hamburg is in ruins, as is the morale of the German people. And if the residents aren’t starving or displaced, they’re still resisting the Brits and Americans bossing them around their native land. Some Germans are so resentful they’re still willing to die defiantly in the name of Hitler, their fallen leader.
Also seething with resentment is Knightley’s character, Rachel Morgan. The British mother lost her 11-year-old son when the Germans bombed London during the war and she’s far from healing. She has absolutely no sympathy for the German people and loathes having to move to Hamburg to be with her colonel/husband Lewis (Jason Clarke). He’s one of the British high command put in charge of rebuilding the country, and it’s a depressing job for him too. This is not a happy couple as evidenced by how half-heartedly they greet each other at the Hamburg train station when she rolls into town to join her spouse. The chill between them could give the German winter a run for its money.
Even though Lewis has secured a beautiful and spacious mansion as their home, Rachel doesn’t take to it. She hates that it’s so huge, despises the modern fixings by Mies van de Rohe, and especially loathes the previous owners left behind in it. Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård) is a sophisticated German architect exceedingly thankful to not be ushered away to an internment camp with his moody teen daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), but he practically haunts the house like a ghost. Still, he bends over backward to be courteous to the Morgan’s, yet Rachel treats him like an incompetent waiter. She wrinkles up her nose at every effort he makes, even though he’s courteous, detailed, and rather easy on the eyes.
Rachel is as rude a character as Knightley has ever played, yet she manages to make her sympathetic by imbuing her with uncertainty. The actress hesitating before enunciating her snide putdowns and her eyes show constant doubt and worry. Helping her too is the sympathetic script, adapted by Rhidian Brook from his novel, with help from screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. The story also keeps us tuned in to Rachel’s plight, especially when her officious husband ignores her continuing mourning to run out to take care of military business at the drop of a helmet.
Stephen is suffering too, having lost his wife in the war. He’s a proud man, forced to live in the attic, and the prickly relationship he ends having with the cranky Rachel soon turns from anger to passion. He’s had enough of her disparaging putdowns and it finally results in him angrily kissing her. Rachel likes that attention, as she’s craving any kind of human connection, and soon they’re clumsily copulating on the dinner table. Yet, even though their relationship explodes in lust, the film resists making more of it, even shying away from nudity. (The way the film is cut suggests Knightley used a body double for some frontal exposure.) Here is where the film’s intents and purposes become clear as it is to be a thoughtful dissertation on depression, not a steamy melodrama.
Director James Kent doesn’t spend nearly the time you’d expect on the lovemaking between Rachel and Stephen, and very little time on their conversation either. The filmmaker is clueing us into the idea that the affair isn’t a love story for the ages, but rather, the fallout from two lost souls clinging to anything that makes them feel something other than numb. Each stands in for their ’missing’ spouse, but they’re not soul mates.
Skarsgård gives an enigmatic performance, measured and controlled, even remote at times. He’s careful not to make Stephen too accessible as that would take away too much focus from Rachel. He is there narratively to be a bridge in her life, a connection that will allow her to return to more of her former self. It’s probably the reason that the Freda character, and her attraction to a Nazi youth, feels underdeveloped. She too is there to bond with Rachel just enough to make the older woman feel motherly again.
It’s also the reason that Clark’s Lewis comes off sympathetic in the story, even though the plot always has him running off from parties with his wife or ignoring her attempts at seduction. Usually, such a role would be a stock villain, but not here. In his way, Lewis is as much a victim of fate as his wife. They’ve both been leveled by the death of their son. His escape is work, like so many men who refuse to cope with grief. Clark underplays too which helps, though his undercooked British accent could’ve been fuller.
Ultimately, despite gorgeous production values, most of what the camera focuses on is Knightley’s ever-expressive face. What Rachel sees, how she sees it, and the changes in her reactions over time in Hamburg is where the real drama lies. Despite numerous shootings and some shockingly effective violence in the story, all the action comes back to Rachel’s reactions. Even when costume designer Bojana Nikitovic dresses Rachel in a stunning gold dress, the film stays focused on Knightley’s wide, wounded eyes. For all of the scope of this expensive period piece, this movie remains all about her forlorn eyes and their struggle to see the world differently. And through such a lens, we watch this big film effectively play like a very small one.
View the trailer for The Aftermath below:
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