‘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


Anna Karenina (2012)

It is a good sequence, Anna Karenina read-along then the movie after. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard wrote as if his viewers already knew the story well, or have seen other film versions, for here, we are watching a highly stylized adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel, and it seems that it is a case of style over story.

Anna Karenina Poster

Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) version is a bold and therefore risky direction. Instead of a realistic rendering of Tolstoy’s epic, Wright offers us a new portal into the story of Anna Karenina. All the world’s a stage, and if anything, the highly reverberated gossip of Petersburg, the adulterous affair of Anna, wife of the respected government official Alexei Karenin with Count Vronsky is aptly rendered a spectacle. Wright’s innovative concept is an interesting take, weaving his characters between the front and the backstage and into the ‘real’ set.

The idea is brilliant, the permeability of actors in and out of limelight, mingling between their own realities, and the idea that all the world’s a stage, one is both an actor and a spectator.

However, the major premise of the cinema is make-believe. It is the ‘realness’, the believability of the characters and their predicaments that arouse our empathy. That happens when we emotionally immerse into the film. As a result, we care for the characters, even though we may not identify with them.

But here while watching this film, I experience a kind of cognitive dissonance. With its setting in the theatre, at the front and backstage, it is like a kind of deconstruction if you will, for we see that these are merely actors acting, and not ‘real’. So as a viewer, I’m just like a fly on the wall, observing how a theatrical production is done. As a result, I find myself detached and aloof.

A consequence of the highly stylized gestures and movements is that they lead to overacting. And with that, believability is compromised. Now, by genre this is not a musical, so, when seeing characters walk like they’re dancing or their actions performed in unison, like the public servants rubber-stamping paper works, the effect is comical. Well, it might be the intended effect, but one that sticks out in a contrived way. The harvesting scene with the workers swinging their scythe at the same time (do they actually do that in real life, for morale?) is another example, makes me think of how natural the harvesting scenes are in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

For some reasons, far from Anna Karenina, I have Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in my mind as an example of a successful stylized and yet captivating film.

Nevertheless, there are many admirable elements in the film. First the sumptuous set design and costumes. The continuous camera work from scene to scene is interesting to watch. But after a while, I feel like I need a breather. Thanks to the external shots, albeit few and far between, I can get a gulp of fresh air.

And I must mention a couple of impressive scenes. First is at the beginning, the opening ball where Kitty sees Anna dancing with Vronsky. That scene is well done in its dramatic effects. I can see the actors’ inner turmoils exposed believably, and for a rare moment, Anna’s conscience at work.

Another one is the horse race. It is interesting to see a horse race in a theatrical setting, like an indoor corral. Putting the horse race in a theatre does not seem to work for me at first, but Wright has handled it effectively… Vronsky’s falling, Anna’s outburst, the shooting of the back-broken horse is one of the few captivating moments in the film.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson

As for the casting, I’m afraid it looks like there is a bit of a miscast for one. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is believable as a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, but here in his blond curls and starched white uniform, he looks more like a truant school boy than the military rising star Vronsky.

Keira Knightly’s poise and costume give an apt portrayal of Anna. But sometimes her facial expressions make her look like a rebellious teenager, fighting house rules and ennui.

The one role I enjoy most is Matthew MacFadyen’s Oblonsky. My opinion might differ with many. I think he is a much more convincing Oblonsky here than Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (2005), another Wright’s production. Jude Law’s character is also well-portrayed as Anna’s restrained husband Karenin the government bureaucrat.

Good to see two of Downton Abbey’s actors in the film, Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley) as Princess Myagkaya and for a brief minute Thomas Howes (Footman William) as Yashvin.

While the love affair between Anna and Vronsky leaves me quite detached, I do see love in others. I see it in Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) quiet yearning for Kitty (Alicia Vikander). I see it too in Kitty’s selfless caring for Levin’s ailing brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), and at the end I see it in Anna’s son Serhoza’s (Oskar McNamara) endearing concern for his toddler half-sister, and I see it in his father Karenin’s slight contented smile looking at his son care for Anna’s child with Vronsky.

And with that scene the film ends. All in all, the production is a brave new look at an old story. It can well lead to more readers trying to discover all the left-out conversations and story lines. And so be it, a worthy attempt to turn viewers back to the book.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


CLICK HERE to read my posts of Anna Karenina read-along.

Atonement: Book Into Film

The Book

Imagine my surprise as I finished Austen’s Northanger Abbey and opened up Ian McEwan’s Atonement to find this epigraph in the beginning of the book:

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained.  What have you been judging from?  Remember the country and the age in which we live.  Remember that we are English: that we are Christians.  Consult your own understanding, you own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you.  Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?  Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads, and newspapers lay everything open?  Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Henry Tilney’s somber words to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey sets the stage for the story in Atonement.  Not only that, these words prove to be the most tragic irony as the plot unfolds, turning Austen’s satirical parody into heart wrenching reality.

The story starts off in the 1930’s, on a hot summer day in the idyllic country estate of the upper-class Tallis family.  The misinterpretation of a couple of incidents by imaginative 13 year-old Briony sets off the events that ultimately rip the whole family apart.  Later in the evening, Briony witnesses a crime but falsely accuses the wrong man, who happens to be her older sister Cecilia’s secret lover Robbie, the housekeeper’s son.  Is it merely the misunderstanding of a young girl that drives her to bear false witness? Or is it jealousy…or even revenge?  Maybe even Briony herself, as she recollects at 77, is baffled by her own motive. The heart is indeed an unsearchable deep to fathom.

Regardless of the cause, it is the consequences of her misdeed that has tormented her all her life: the breakdown of family relationships, the innocent sent to jail, and later to a horrific war zone, and a pair of lovers torn apart.  As she cannot undo the past, Briony re-creates in the sanctuary of her own novel writing an alternative ending to a tragic story. Fantasy or realism?  As she reaches old age and dementia sets in, the line between the two has also blurred, and yet her inner torments stay as sharp as ever.

Through Briony’s story, McEwan has poignantly shown that remaining unforgiven is probably the harshest punishment of sin.  No matter how hard one works to be redeemed, the act of forgiveness lies with the one who has been wronged.  In the latter part of the story, we see Briony’s painful strive for peace and atonement, and her realization that redemption comes only when sin is pardoned.  Without the forgiveness of sin, there is no end to guilt.

But the story is not only about Briony’s desparate attempt to come to terms with her past, it is also a love epic.  It is the heart-wrenching chronicle of the perseverance and loyalty between two lovers, Cecilia and Robbie, who, sustained by love, are able to withstand the searing pain of separation and atrocities. It is about the absurdity of war, that in the chaos of a war zone, everyone is guilty, and yet, everyone is a victim. It is also about the essence of a family and the fragility of relationships.  The multi-layered structure of the plot and characterization give rise to the complexity and depth of the story.

Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan has written 11 novels and won numerous literary awards.  The novel Atonement has garnered four since its publication in 2001.  McEwan has shown himself to be a master of descriptive and incisive writing.  His story is riveting.  At times I have to read slowly, going back to re-read a passage several times, in order to capture all the details and savour the intricacies of the description and characterization.  At times I read it quickly to capture the flow of the plot, eager to find out where it would lead me.  The author has my emotions in his grasp.  I have to admit, this is one of the rare occasions that I highlight as I read a novel.  Overall, a very engrossing and satisfying read.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Film

Atonement the movie

Update February 11:  Atonement just won Best Picture and Best Production Design at the BAFTA (British Academy for Film and Television Arts) Awards in London yesterday.

Update January 22:  Atonement is nominated for 7 Oscars at the 2008 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score.

Update on January 14:  Atonement won the 2008 Golden Globe Best Picture (Drama) and Best Original Score Awards announced at the HFPA News Conference last night.

With such a masterpiece in their hands, the screenwriter, director, actors …the whole lot, have a tall order to fill in turning the book into film.  I must say they have done an extraordinary job in this adaptation.  The film is nominated for 7 Golden Globe, including Best Picture (Drama), Best Actress and Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

Unlike many movies based on literary work, this is one of the rare ones that truly depicts the essence of the book and keeps the integrity of its plot.  Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Oscar winner for his screenplay of Dangerous Liaison, 1988 ) has gleaned the pivotal episodes and remained loyal to the work, keeping the epic span intact; although the war section can be dealt with more details and depth as the novel has rendered.

Thanks to the great work in film editing, the audience can readily capture the flow of the story and benefit also from the seamless flashbacks to see the same event from another point of view, hence, understanding Briony’s misinterpretation. I’m sure even for those who haven’t read the novel, the storytelling is still clear and equally intense.

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, 2005) uses the elements of film powerfully to bring to life an excellent script. The music and sound effects (who would imagine the typing sound on an old Corona can be used so effectively in a musical score), the cinematography and the visual flashbacks, the costumes and set all work together to create a masterpiece of cinema artistry worthy of McEwan’s work.  Kudos to Dario Marianelli (The Brave One, 2007; Pride and Prejudice, 2005), who has composed a most riveting score heightening the intensity and poignancy of the film.  I must also stress that, while the music is a powerful element in the movie, the silent moments are equally engrossing.

Young Briony, 13 year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (I’ve read different versions of how her first name should be pronounced so I’m not including any suggestion here) well deserves the Golden Globe nod for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.  Veteran actress and Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave is brilliant and her poignant summing up at the end is both needed and satisfying. I’m afraid to say the weak link is Briony at 18, played by Romola Garai (Amazing Grace, 2006), where she could be more intense and affective.

And for the lovers, Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2007, 2006; Pride and Prejudice, 2005) and James McAvoy (Becoming Jane, 2007; The Last King of Scotland, 2006) as Cecilia and Robbie, may well go down in movie history as a memorable pair of star-crossed lovers. Their acting is superb and their chemistry, charismatic.  The passionate scene in the library just confirms that it doesn’t need nudity to convey love, desire, or sensuality.  I had in mind the movie Lust Caution (Ang Lee, 2007) as I was watching this scene.

Knightley and McAvoy are nominated for a Best Actress and Best Actor award at the Golden Globes.  For their very moving performance in Atonement, I’d like to see them continue the ride all the way to the Oscars, and I wish them well.

Overall, an excellent adaptation of an enthralling novel.  Don’t wait to read the book, go see the movie.  But I’m sure after that, you’ll want to get hold of the novel right away.  This is one of the rare examples of both book and film are worthy of complementing each other.

~ ~ ~ Ripples