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One of those very rare films that might have been good if there had only been a bit more of it, James Kent’s The Aftermath focuses on the setting and angst surrounding a romantic triangle without sufficiently imagining how it came to be. A handsome period piece whose fine cast (Alexander Skarsgard, Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke) is matched by respected source material and the director of the well-received Testament of Youth, it has enough highbrow trappings to seduce some moviegoers who crave adult fare. But where it might have been an old-fashioned melodrama with credible historical appeal, instead it suggests an old-school celluloid epic whose print has lost a reel or two.
We’re in Hamburg right after the war, but the fresh devastation of Allied Forces’ bombing — thousands of bodies remain to be found under the rubble — isn’t the “aftermath” driving the story we’re about to see. Instead, there’s the damage a child’s death has done to the marriage of Clarke’s British Colonel Lewis Morgan and Knightley’s Rachael. Their only son was killed by a German bomb, and they have neither grieved nor reconciled properly. Now, as the Colonel helps lead peacetime clean-up efforts, the army has requisitioned a mansion where Rachael can come live with him. That house is itself a site of recent loss.
Release date: Mar 15, 2019
The architect who lives there, Stefan Lubert (Skarsgard), is a widower whose wife died in the Allied attack. He was left to raise their teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), and though he is attentive to her behavior at home, we’ll soon find him tragically laissez-faire regarding the time she spends away. Stefan greets the Morgans cordially, betraying no bitterness as he shows them through the home he’s handing over. His friendliness doesn’t keep Rachael from sneering at his chic modernist furnishings; in fact, she can hardly bear to be in the same room as the Luberts. (That’s fine by Freda, who rebuffs kind gestures.) But Lewis, with a professional’s pragmatism about war and peace, intends to be friendly and generous. Rather than sending the Luberts off to some unknown hovel, he offers to let them live in the home’s attic until Her Majesty’s forces move out.
In the coming days, we see social awkwardness on multiple fronts — between the two families; between father and daughter; between the husband and wife who aren’t quite ready for intimacy — while the film sketches in some facts of life in 1945 Hamburg. Adapting a novel by Rhidian Brook, screenwriting team Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse trim these details down to only what pertains to the plot. Allied forces have been tasked with determining which Germans are “clean” and which are tainted by involvement with the Nazi party; many of Lewis’ colleagues aren’t nearly as empathetic as he is; and an untold number of young men, with “88” branded on their forearms, plot violence in the name of loyalty to Hitler. (Freda is currently falling in love with a member of this group.)
With her husband gone much of the time, Rachael is increasingly testy with her housemates, complaining that they’re not staying in their “zone” while Stefan attempts to keep the peace. Skarsgard’s eyes convey many things in these scenes — the deference of a man smart enough to know the realities of his situation and wise enough to comply; the sadness of seeing ungrateful intruders occupying his broken family’s rooms; the fear that he will not be found “clean” by Lewis’ team of investigators.
What those eyes don’t betray is attraction to Rachael; and on Knightley’s side, Mrs. Morgan’s snippiness never reads like sublimated attraction. But soon, the film has Stefan kissing her as an angry provocation; and soon after that, they’re fornicating in the dining room. Some viewers may find the sheer Skarsgard-ness of the situation adequate to explain any lovemaking that transpires, and surely, the actor is magnetic in his depiction of grief. But it’s difficult to believe that the screenwriters didn’t pen scenes charting how resentment transformed into attraction, and it’s hard to imagine why those scenes aren’t here.
Viewers who don’t balk at the sudden love story may still object at Freda’s reaction when Rachael commandeers her mother’s piano and sheet music. The last time we saw Freda, she expressed her feelings toward the Morgans by hissing like a wild animal; now, she sits sweetly and joins in for a few bars of “Clair de Lune.” When the film decides it’s time for Knightley’s big acting moment, Freda politely rises from the piano bench and gets out of the camera’s way, standing weirdly above as Rachael confronts the loss of her son.
That bit of staging may be the only moment in the pic that couldn’t be saved from awkwardness by some connective tissue in the script and performances. But without such scenes, Rachael and Stefan’s upcoming romantic getaway is nearly bizarre — watch them frolic and toss snowballs while Lewis is dealing with terrorists! — as is the suddenness with which Stefan invites her to run off with him to the Alps.
Poor Lewis, when he finally realizes what’s going on, digests it so efficiently you’d think he, too, had several scenes cut out of his story.
Production companies: Scott Free Productions, Amusement Park Films
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Anna Katharina Schimrigk, Jannik Schumann
Director: James Kent
Screenwriters: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Producers: Jack Arbuthnott, Malte Grunert, Ridley Scott
Executive producers: Carlo Dusi, Joe Oppenheimer
Director of photography: Franz Lustig
Production designer: Sonja Klaus
Costume designer: Bojana Nikitovic
Editor: Beverley Mills
Composer: Martin Phipps
Casting director: Arwa Salmanova
Rated R, 108 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival