The Aftermath (2019)
A lot of interesting ideas get lightly touched on in The Aftermath, director James Kent’s romantic drama adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name. It is, after all, set in Hamburg in the immediate aftermath of World War II and focuses on an affair between a British woman who lost her son to German bombing, and a German man who lost his wife to British bombing, so there’s certainly plenty of emotional and political grist for the story mill.
That grist largely remains unground, though. I’ve not read the source novel, but as depicted on the screen The Aftermath leaves a lot of potential conflict and drama on the table, almost uniformly choosing the safest and most strife-free narrative path. Which may be sensible, but it also makes for a fairly inert film.
In detail: Keira Knightley is Rachael Morgan, packed off to post-war Berlin when her Army officer husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), is sent there to help administrate the country after the destruction of the Nazi regime. Alexander Skarsgård is Stephen Lubert, the architect whose house is requisitioned for the Morgans to stay in, meaning Stephen and his daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann), are off to a refugee camp; except that the terribly decent Lewis has a change of heart and decides the Luberts can stay on as long as they keep out of the way – not a big ask, considering the stately manse they share.
This does, in retrospect, turn out to be a bad idea, as Rachael and Stephen’s twinned tragic losses, along with Lewis’s work-mandated absences, soon see the pair embarking on a torrid affair, albeit a very restrained one.
There’s a lot of potential in this story concept and The Aftermath frequently looks like its going to capitalize on it at several points in the film, dancing around themes like the poor treatment of Germans by occupying Brits, the radicalization of German youths in the postwar landscape, the horribly empathetic link forged by shared trauma, and more. It never quite manages to fully engage with its own political and cultural implications, though, and even when the drama kicks up a few notches in the back half, the suspense generated barely registers.
Yet there are elements in play that are enjoyable to some degree. The cast is great across the board, and although everyone is very much in Very Serious Actor mode, the film does remember to give us our mandated dose of pretty people doing (ostensibly) dramatic things — if the sight of Alexander Skarsgård moodily chopping wood in a cable knit sweater to assuage his longing for Keira Knightley will get your blood pumping, this film has got you. The production design by Sonja Klaus, A Good Year (2006), gleams with furniture polish and brass fittings whenever the light isn’t being absorbed by the dense wool of winter uniforms or obscured by smoke from the bombed-out city. It certainly looks the business — there’s just not enough horsepower under the hood to get this beautiful beast up to speed.
Which is a damn shame, because this kind of adult-oriented literary drama is one of the few mid-budget cinema forms left in the current landscape, and when one of them doesn’t perform to spec, it’s taking up space that a better example of the form could occupy. The Aftermath is not a terrible film, but it’s a disappointingly mediocre one.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson