A great-looking drama
Based on Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name, this decidedly unexceptional post-war drama finds an unlikely romance in the heart of a decimated Hamburg. Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke are Rachel and Lewis Morgan: Lewis is a British colonel tasked with rooting out surviving Nazi sympathisers, with he and his wife taking up residence in the requisitioned home of architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård). Tensions run high between the two parties (Stefan’s rebellious daughter still harbours fury against the British for the death of her mother), but whilst Lewis is away fighting a war that’s already won, Rachel is left to fight her own battles: with grief, over the loss of her son in the Blitz, and a strange yearning for Lubert.
Knightley is on excellent form, here. Prickly and wan, her display of strangled anguish burns like a cinder amongst the snow and ash. A much-marketed scene of Rachel taking to the piano to perform Clair De Lune could so easily feel trite (how many times have we heard Debussy’s masterwork used as a cheap gateway to awe and pathos in cinema?), is loaded with genuine emotion.
She and Clarke are playing husband and wife again – they previously portrayed a real-life couple in 2015’s Everest, where most of their conversations took place over the phone. Here, their conversations carry a very different kind of disconnect, both intentionally (the screenplay makes a lot of their differing responses to their son’s passing) and accidentally. Clarke is a fine actor, but his particular talents for craggy intensity or jovial warmth have little use in a role that is physically very diminished, and all to do with suffocated regret.
He’s also saddled with a half-baked subplot involving the roundup of Hitler loyalists that takes a vague stab at morality statements. Even the film itself doesn’t seem particularly interested in the violence, realising that we’re far more invested in Rachel’s more lowkey adventures with Jumper Daddy Stefan (who knew Germany of 1946 had the monopoly on great knitwear?).
Skarsgård finds his feet in this role, off the back of a rather ho-hum 2018: his natural affinity for shyness and saying everything with a glare are utilised very effectively (though his accent tends to wander the length and breadth of Europe). Stefan and Rachel’s affair is – quite admirably – centred on her needs and wants over some kind of male fantasy, but it’s frequently a case of too much tension and not enough release.
Their moments of intimacy are as handsomely-mounted as the rest – The Aftermath comes packaged as a Ridley Scott production,and you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with the glamour and period detail. Inevitably, all the shine begins to feel like a deliberate distraction from the rapidly melodramatic decline of the script. With the exception of a supremely well-played section where Rachel lays down her burdens at the ear of Stefan’s daughter (Flora Thiemann), the emotional core of the story is lost behind gleaming chandeliers and glossy frocks, polished off by an ending that not so much drops the ball as punctures it with a bayonet.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum