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.
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