D: James Kent / 108m
Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schümann, Fionn O’Shea, Alexander Scheer
In the winter of 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) comes to Hamburg to be with her husband, Lewis (Clarke), who is a colonel in the British Forces. They are to live in a requisitioned house on the outskirts of the city, the home of an architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Thiemann). Though Lewis has a great deal of respect for Lubert – and for the ordinary German people – Rachael is less than friendly. She has a reason: their son, Michael, was killed in a bombing raid when he was eleven. But as Lewis spends more and more time trying to track down the members of a group of fanatical Nazis called the 88’s, Rachael becomes more and more reliant on Lubert’s company, and while Lewis is away for a few days, she and Lubert become much closer. The pair make plans to leave Hamburg together, and when Lewis returns Rachael determines to tell him their marriage is over. But danger lurks in the wings: Freda has unwittingly aided a member of the 88’s, Albert (Schümann), in targeting Lewis for assassination…
Put Keira Knightley in a period costume, and she shines. It’s as much a cinematic given as Tom Cruise doing a dangerous stunt (though without the broken ankle). With a gift for interpreting closeted emotions and their eventual impassioned expression, Knightley is always the best thing about the movies she makes, and The Aftermath is no exception. Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie takes full advantage of Knightley’s skills as an actress, and provides viewers with a central character whose sense of morality, and her sense of loyalty, is challenged by the (somewhat staid) attentions of a man she sets out to hate, but who, in time honoured romantic fashion, she later falls in love with. That this happens at all is predictable enough, and there are many clues to tick off along the way, from the less than convincing reunion between Rachael and Lewis at the train station, to Lewis’s inability to talk about the death of their son, to the meaningful stares Rachael and Lubert exchange whenever anyone isn’t looking. With Lewis playing the absent, work-focused husband, it’s left to Rachael to occupy her time by having an affair and hoping for a better life. It’s the crux of a movie that feels as familiar, and therefore as empty, as many before it.
And so, it’s left to Knightley to rescue the movie from its self-imposed doldrums and minor soap opera theatrics. In many ways the movie doesn’t deserve her, because she seems to be the only one who’s trying. There’s a scene where Rachael breaks down and talks about her son that is truly heartbreaking for the depth of the despair and the grief that Knightley expresses. And that scene sticks out like a sore thumb because there’s no other scene to match it for its emotion, and its power, and its impact. Likewise, Skarsgård and Clarke are left in her wake, playing monotone versions of characters we’ve seen a hundred times over, and unable to make them look or sound like anything other than broad stereotypes. With the narrative offering nothing new, and Kent maintaining a steady but too respectful pace, the movie fails to excite, and remains a placid affair about a – well, placid affair. The wintry locations at least add some visual flair to proceedings, and the recreation of bomb-ravaged Hamburg is effectively realised, but these aspects aren’t enough when the main storyline should be passionate and convincing, instead of moderate and benign. Thank heaven then for Knightley, and a performance that elevates the material whenever she’s on screen.
Rating: 6/10 – a movie that means well, but which starts off slowly and stays that way (and despite an attempt at adding thriller elements towards the end), The Aftermath is rescued from terminal dullness by the force and intensity of Keira Knightley’s performance; a period romantic drama that at least gets the “period” right, this is a cautious, overly restrained tale that allows the odd flourish to shine through from time to time, but which in the end, doesn’t offer enough in the way of rewards to make it more than occasionally memorable.