THE STORY – In 1946 Rachael Morgan arrives in the ruins of Hamburg to be reunited with her husband, Lewis, who is a British colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city. As they set off for their new home, Rachael is stunned to discover that Lewis has made an unexpected decision: They will be sharing the grand house with its previous owners, a German widower and his troubled daughter. In this charged atmosphere, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal.
THE CAST – Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård & Jason Clarke
THE TEAM – James Kent (Director), Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
Keira Knightley is, without question, one of the best leading ladies of period dramas. So when I found out that a new post-WWII drama starring Knightley by “Testament of Youth” director James Kent was being released, I was thrilled. “The Aftermath” has the fascinating premise of the wife of a British army officer joining him in Hamburg in the months immediately following the end of World War II and falling for the German man whose house they have taken over. If only it managed to live up to its concept or any of Knightley’s other previous top-notch period dramas such as “Pride & Prejudice” or even last year’s “Colette.”
Based on a 2013 novel by Rhidian Brook, the film opens as Rachael Morgan (Knightley) is reunited with her British officer husband Lewis (Jason Clarke) who is still in Hamburg post-war to help deal with remaining strife and unrest. It is clear very early on that all is not well between the couple as they moved into their allocated mansion owned by German architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård). Lewis, sympathetic to the plight of those innocent Germans who have the difficult task of moving on after losing a war, allows Stefan and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) to remain living in the house with them. However, Rachael who is mourning the loss of her son soon bonds with the widower Stefan in ways Lewis could not have predicted.
Unfortunately, the film falls short of its own unique set-up. The characters are given little initial development. Through the whole course of the film, we never learn what Lewis did before he was in the army. They don’t work hard enough to sell the audience on Rachael and Lewis’s relationship pre-war. There are small plot holes throughout the movie as well: nothing bad enough to completely derail it but still noticeable. There’s also a rather cringe-inducing and pointless plotline about Stefan’s preteen daughter Freda cutting school and becoming involved with a young Nazi sympathizer that distracts from the main trio.
Despite the film’s problems, Knightley shines above it in a very internalized performance as the conflicted Rachael. She brings a coldness to the character in the early scenes that the audience watches thaw away slowly to reveal the hurt that she is repressing. Skarsgård is equally good in many beautiful chunky-knit sweaters as the cultured bilingual Stefan who manages to win the audience over despite knowing relatively little about him. Jason Clarke’s role builds up to an emotional big crescendo of a scene towards the end. While he’s definitely the weakest link in the trio as the stern and stifled Lewis, that is more the writer’s fault than his own.
Sometimes the film leans into the clichés of a moody war drama a bit too much (at one point, Rachael actually watches through the window as Stefan chops wood). However, it has some beautiful moments aesthetically, especially the brief choppy flashbacks to Rachel with her son. While the costumes are lovely, it’s the house itself that is the star design-wise. It feels particularly real, perhaps because it was shot in an actual house outside of Hamburg rather than on sets. The contrast of the mansion and the shots of rubble-strewn Germany post-Allied bombing is stark.
“The Aftermath” is ambitious in tackling some difficult topics: what it means to be the winners and the losers of a world war and the way in which losing a child can tear a marriage apart. While it’s far from perfect, it’s a respectable second feature film from director James Kent. The issues with the plot and characterization can somewhat be overlooked due to the solid acting work. If you’re a fan of period dramas, it’s worth seeing even if it’s not the best in the genre, especially once you can stream it on a rainy day with a hot beverage in hand.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Keira Knightley gives another solid period drama performance in a film that deals with the fascinating topics of the aftermath of WWII in Germany and what losing a child does to a couple.
THE BAD – The film never fully realizes its own potential due to its inadequate character development, plot holes and a needless side plot. that detracts from the main actors and their story.