‘British reserve’ may be a cliché, but clichés have an alarming habit of reasserting themselves over and over. James Kent is an experienced director for British television whose 2014 debut feature Testament of Youth, was based on Vera Brittain’s famous memoir of World War One. That movie was a highly professional production but a lukewarm experience for the viewer. Kent’s new film, The Aftermath, is set in Hamburg in the months following the end of World War Two. Like its predecessor it’s a slick piece of work that never quite manages to deliver the emotional punch the story requires.
The Aftermath tells the story of a love triangle set in the ruins of a city bombed to smithereens by the Allies. It has all the elements of a melodrama: smouldering, forbidden passions building in secret; a painful, traumatic memory that poisons a happy marriage; the festering resentment of the Germans for their conquerors. Instead we get a mellow drama, in which everything proceeds in a polite and orderly fashion.
Keira Knightley at her most uptight is a good choice for the role of Rachael Morgan, wife of Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), commander of the British occupying forces who have been given the job of cleaning-up the mess left by the war. That means supervising the survivors as they dig through the rubble, and investigating former ties with the Nazi party.The devastation is so complete it would be the merest fantasy to speak of reconstruction. The citizens of Hamburg live like cave people in the burnt-out shells of buildings. They pore over piles of bricks, looking for the bodies of loved ones. Everything is grim, grey and dirty.
Everything except the splendid mansion of the Lubert family, where Colonel Morgan has been billeted. The owner, architect, Stephan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thielman), have been moved into the attic while the Brits take over the bulk of the house. Herr Lubert is a model of discretion, and Morgan magnanimously allows him to remain in residence. We already know how this is going to end.
Neither is it surprising that Rachael begins with a fierce hatred for the Germans that will undergo a complete reversal. This is standard fare. Or that young Freda is filled with an anger that her father can’t control. Or that some of the British officers, such as Burnham (Martin Compston) behave in a boorish, offensive manner towards the former enemy.
It’s slightly harder to accept boofy Aussie, Jason Clarke, as a thoroughly British, thoroughly decent officer who believes in treating his German charges with respect. One might even conclude that Morgan’s decency leads to his own downfall, although this would be a perverse interpretation.
Herr Lubert has lost his wife in the bombing of Hamburg and the Morgans have lost their 11-year-old son in the bombing of London. These twin traumas fuel tensions in a household in which Morgan is called away on duty at all hours. Eventually the sexual tension between Lubert and Rachael boils over. The only problem is that up until this point there has hardly been any sexual tension.
While this is happening, Freda is striking up a romance with Albert (Jannik Schümann), a young Nazi eager to avenge the Fatherland’s humiliation, although this liaison is even less convincing than Lubert and Rachael’s sudden awakening to passion. Albert comes across as little more than a plot device used to introduce some element of action, or external crisis, into a story that threatens to subside into a display of awkardness in the drawing room.
Naturally, as soon as the ice is broken, Rachael and Lubert fall for each other extravagantly. Skarsgård revisits the sexy, but slightly psycho intensity he displayed in the series Big Little Lies, while Knightley is all wide eyes and gnashing teeth, like a ferret on heat. Clarke does a good job with the ‘hurt but resigned’ routine. “Rachael, you’re the best part of me,” he says, with exquisite corniness. If you’re surprised by the ending you haven’t watched enough movies.
The Aftermath is one of those peculiar films in which there has been a huge effort to get the sets and costumes right, while plot and character development are treated as a matter of secondary importance. Martin Phipps’s score, reminiscent of Gorecki’s melancholy music, adds to the atmosphere of a movie that always looksgreat, even if the story merely plods along. There is a niggling sense in which Knightley, Skarsgård and Clarke are competing for attention with the beautiful interiors and fashionable knitwear.
Herr Lubert may have lost his beloved wife in the bombing of Hamburg, but mercifully his wardrobe remained unharmed. It’s revealing that when thinking of her dead son, Rachael takes out one of his old jumpers and fondles it tearfully. Perhaps there’s a moral of this story. Even if your country has been defeated in a disastrous war, your daughter is dating a Nazi, you’ve lost a cherished member of your family, or your marriage is falling apart, there’s simply no excuse for not looking your best.
Directed by James Kent
Written by Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, Rhidian Brook, after a novel by Rhidian Brook
Starring Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Martin Compston, Jannik Schümann, Kate Phillips
UK/Germany/USA, rated M, 108 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 April, 2019