‘The Aftermath’ has all the right ingredients except…

From the beginning, all the ingredients seem to be in place for a satisfying period movie. Sumptuous set design, beautiful costume and makeup, even the rubbles and chaos are realistic. What more, three seasoned, popular actors under a helmer who had proven he could do war movies with his Testament of Youth (2014).

Director James Kent is all set to pull us into great expectations from the start. British military wife Rachel Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives by train in Hamburg, Germany,  in the year 1946.  She is greeted warmly by her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British Colonel stationed there to enforce order in the aftermath of the War.

The Morgans are staying in a mansion requisitioned from the Nazi’s. But due to Lewis’s benevolence, the former owner, handsome German widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his troubled teenaged daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) are allowed to stay until they are sent to the camp. Why the delay is not explained, an arrangement definitely isn’t going to be too comfortable. Just look here, Rachel, who has lost her young son in the war, refuses to even shake hands with the enemy, now cohabitant of the mansion.

The Aftermath movie still
Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley in an early scene of ‘The Aftermath’. Photo: Fox Searchlight.

No sooner had they settled than Lewis needed to go away on military duties, leaving his wife behind. What ensues is predictable, but unfathomable: How a woman who still mourns her lost young son and holds animosity against the enemy, and a German widower who’d lost his wife during the war and with her memory still vivid in the house, can come together so quickly just days of living under the same roof. From refusing to shake hands to sleeping with the enemy in just a few scene changes, the unconvincing storyline abruptly stops any appreciation I’ve had of other cinematic elements up to that point. 

Adapted from the novel by Rhidian Brook, the screenwriters, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, must have thought celebrity actors have the power and charisma to jazz up a weak script. Fact is, even talented actors are bound by the writing, or, hampered by it. Just look at some other works by Knightley, for example, Atonement (2007) or her latest Colette (2018), comparing her performance in those films with her role here in The Aftermath seems like we’re watching the living in contrast to a pedestal decorative that can tear up on demand.

Alexander Skarsgård can release much intensity if the script allows, case in point is his role in Big Little Lies (2017), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe. Instead, his character as Stephen in The Aftermath is bland, driven by inexplicable motive, except maybe an act of violation to avenge. But no, he and Rachel, who are practically strangers, seriously mean love here. Whatever happened to his late wife’s memory at the piano? With Rachel playing her music still placed on the Steinway, even Debussy’s Clair de Lune can’t shine a light on the blurry motive.

Jason Clarke is repeating his demeanour as in Mudbound (2017), a husband oblivious of what’s going on with the affair of his wife. Here in The Aftermath, the underlying motivations of each character and backstory is just slightly touched on without much elaboration. Are the visuals in bed more important than the rational for modern viewers? I sure hope not.

Movies set during the World Wars work only if there are more to mull on rather than just the actions and the aesthetics. Complexity of characters and conflicts are what pull viewers in, eliciting empathy. Some thought-provoking or a bit challenging ideas and dialogues could help too. Several recent examples are Their Finest (2016) and Darkest Hour (2017), or director Kent’s own Testament of Youth (2014); the other end would be the emotionless The Monuments Men (2014).

I can’t help but think of a WWII classic. Why Casablanca (1942) works, among many factors, are the intelligent dialogues and a surprise ending, surprising to the character involved, but gratifying for the viewers, leaving them with much to mull on, values, priorities, and a lingering feeling for two star-crossed lovers. Unfortunately, that kind of  emotions, thoughts and admiration for the characters were not the aftermath as I left the theatre.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “‘The Aftermath’ has all the right ingredients except…”

  1. I saw this film recently too, and you’re right, as a film the plot seems flimsy, but having read the book gave me some of the backstory that’s missing from the film.
    If you check out my review of the book (https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/01/22/the-aftermath-by-rhidian-brook/), you will see that I found the love affair unconvincing, but that the author Rhidian Brook had said it was based on real events. And that brings to mind for me now, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suits Francaise, in which her central character is obliged to billet a handsome young German soldier, and much against her anger about the Occupation, when the sight of a German uniform makes her feel ill, she falls for him. Nemirovsky was living that experience of Occupation when she wrote the book. And yet she could imagine love transcending all that hatred…

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    1. Lisa,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your view. I’m sure reading the book first will help in grasping the characters’ internal worlds, the major diff. between book and movie. But then again, a good adaptation shouldn’t depend on audience to first read the book to prepare and understand, it should stand alone as a unified production with clarity in dealing with character motivations, presenting the backstory and characters’ present state of mind with convincing cinematic sequences. That rests upon a good screenplay and the director’s execution of it.

      Thanks for suggesting a similar scenario in Nemirovsky’s “Suite Française”. And I can think of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” as well. For both of them, they are young women falling for young German soldiers. I agree such a scenario is likely. Here in “The Aftermath”, though, the backstory as you’ve mentioned is important as Rachel has lost her son and is bitter and sad while Stephen is similarly mourning his wife, let alone betraying the emotional trust of his daughter. So the change into heated passion and even running away together in so short a time sounds a bit unconvincing, especially without much believable connecting sequences. I blame it on the ‘flimsy’ script. Just wondering, is the ending the same as the book? (without giving out a spoiler 🙂 )

      Again, thanks for stopping by and taking your time to comment.

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      1. Oh absolutely, the film should stand on its own, and if my husband—who saw the film with me but hadn’t read the book—is anything to go by, then it wasn’t as convincing as it should have been.
        Do you know, I can’t remember the ending now. I usually write up a book in my reading journal as well as write a review, so I’ve got a record of what happened without having spoilers on the blog, but I haven’t done it with that one, and it was a library book so I can’t check. Sorry!

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  2. I so wanted to see and like this movie and the more I heard about it the more I thought, “I’m not sure I want to waste my time.” I love WWII-era movies and the cast sounded good. But when I heard the plot, I thought, “given the time frame, it’s way to implausible.” Not that those relationships couldn’t/didn’t happen. I’m sure they do and as others have written above, Suite Francaise and Guernsey are good examples of it, but they better fit the context. Too much, too soon here. (I have to say, if you’d loved it, I would have rethought my attendance — or lack thereof!)

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    1. As the commenter below laid out in details, the book apparently is more substantial. However, the movie should stand alone as a creative production that requires no prior reading prep. I know, as much as we love period movies, they are not all gratifying. But I feel most important and essential is the story, the writing, that’s the initial spark of everything else.

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  3. The novel has significant differences from the film, the ending being one of them. The film leads up to a final choice by Rachel between two men. In the novel, by contrast, the choice is made for her by the discovery that Stephen’s wife is not quite as dead as all the characters thought. I’m not sure how that would play in a film adaptation. Also, Lewis, not Rachel, is the key force in getting Stephen cleared from suspicion for Nazi sympathies, and he does this by essentially blackmailing the corrupt British intelligence officer who was holding up the clearance. Turns out the intelligence officer was masterminding the theft of German artifacts for sale in England.

    As to the affair, I don’t think the novel was any more helpful in its explanation than the film, but the time period in both novel and film seemed much longer before the affair’s inception than the “few days” mentioned in the review. If anything, I thought the film might have been better than the novel in showing the extent of Lewis’s effective abandonment of Rachel and her resulting loneliness. In the novel she and Lewis have a second son living with them, which reduces the loneliness factor as well as making the betrayal worse by potentially ripping up her son’s life too.

    All in all, I think there are more problems with the novel than the film. When you act out a story the hiccups become more obvious than they do on the written page — the actors (and director) are faced with situations that just don’t seem to work when transposed from paper into action. The screenwriters made the story more cinema-ready, but they could not have anticipated all the problems the actors ultimately must have encountered. If they had, they probably would have written more transition scenes to lay the groundwork for the affair. I think the actors did what they could with it, and those in the audience who can suspend disbelief will just go with the flow and enjoy it.

    And do not love affairs in real life often begin quickly with stupid decisions? Maybe this is one of them, but if so I’m not sure you need to bring in A-list talent to portray the dramatic inanities of thoughtless characters. I think the filmmakers were looking for depth in this, in which case thank heavens for Knightley!

    All in all, I enjoyed the film, both for its setting and performances. I thought Knightley sold it as well as it could be sold, given the script.

    By the way, I had trouble parsing the last sentence of the 5th paragraph in the review. Did you leave something out?

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    1. Derwiddian,

      Thanks for a detailed analysis and comparison of the book and the movie. Looks like originally there are more storylines than just this main, romancing one. If the screenwriters had beefed up the script with some more backstory, or added in a couple of stronger subplots, the movie could be more intriguing. No matter, for the sake of discussing this popular concept of book to film adaptation, another way to gauge how effective (and affective) a movie is could well be how motivated viewers want to turn to the book after watching. I’m afraid with this feature it just didn’t work for me in this regard.

      Again, thanks for stopping by Ripples, and as I usually say to commenters, thanks for your two pebbles. 🙂

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  4. This sounds frustrating, what a shame, from the comments it just seems like this was a bad adaptation. I do find war-movies-gone-wrong more annoying than other types of bad films, because the subject matter is so serious and sad.

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