A surprisingly good post war drama, The Aftermath succeeds by virtue of (in my opinion) a unique historical setting and an equally unique (decent) Keira Knightley performance.
Post WW2, British army colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is put in charge of largely destroyed Hamburg, and sends for wife Rachael (Knightley). The forces requisition the home of architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard) for the Morgans, but as marital issues come to the fore alongside a persistent pro Nazi resistance, Rachael confronts these issues and an underlying grief via the attentions of Stefan.
This is usually the sort of film I’d run a mile from based on the basic assumption it’s a romantic drama, particularly a period romantic drama. But I was really surprised at the emotional depth of the characters, with a focus on grief amid the unique setting post war rather than during the war.
Director James Kent and writers Joe Shrapnel (what a surname) and Anna Waterhouse – who adapt a book by Rhidian Brook – have the opportunity to depict a time not often seen in film. The only movie I can recall at this time in Europe is The Third Man, and the uneasy peace and shifting loyalties of that are evoked somewhat here, though not as effectively.
The Morgans are in a Germany humbled and destroyed, with people slowly starting to rebel against occupying forces from Britain, the USA and Russia. This conflict, balanced with the uneasy truce between the past and present homeowners, sets up the rather rote affair, but also gives the film an interesting thematic background, characters not sure what to think of those they were at war with not long ago.
A sort of paranoia is hinted at (and in better films might have been more effective), but despite being afflicted by the cliches of similar dramas, I was surprised at the no holds barred study of how tragedy and grief destroy relationships. The writers manage to get past quite a few “obvious” story turns, and the conclusion is surprising if unexpected, though when you understand the characters it does make a strange sort of sense!
I think they deserve credit for chiselling out character quirks for the three leads, each reacting to grief and loss in very different ways. However, an interesting subplot on the resurgent neo-Nazi resistance is undercooked, and ends with a whimper despite the set up. I’d have liked to feel more of a sense of place in the city (largely shown as a bombed out shell), perhaps with more developed characters reacting to the new status quo.
The film looks great though, Franz Lustig’s cinematography and the great Prague locations giving scenes an epic or intimate, authentic feel. Set design is clever in terms of the shell of Hamburg, while the real house used feels as if it’s travelled through time just for the film, both inside (with period specific architecture and furnishings) as well as out (the snowy, forested grounds evoking its remoteness and prior splendour). The pallette also fits the muted, drab post war glumness, punctuated with dashes of shocking colour.
The score by Martin Phipps features haunting themes and is measured well to the slow burning drama, while use of Claire de Lune by Debussy is also notably good, coming at perhaps the story’s peak moment, and giving that famous piano piece extra power.
As mentioned, this is the best Keira Knightley performance I’ve seen. She plays Rachael from the start as a woman about to crumble from intense grief, which explodes or slowly appears from nothing – it’s a shame the film around her doesn’t quite match, because she really showcases ability that so many other films neglect to try and bring out. While she’s carved quite a niche in period films (such as Colette), this felt like a real departure, and one scene in particular (you’ll know which) is a raw, tangible explosion of believable grief.
Clarke is usually a character actor in forgettable blockbusters, his craggy features and dangerous eyes distinctive. Here though he gives a great turn as Lewis, who at first appears another dangerous, volatile, detached husband figure. But Clark and the writers make him sympathetic, painting a surprising picture of a man empathetic towards the Germans despite what the war took from him, and who barely deals with monumental grief until it’s too late – he’s broken but begging to be put back together again.
Alexander Skarsgard gives another understated performance as the third part of the triangle, the Swede’s height, expressive face and eyes and hearthrob status wielded to disarming effect. He evokes that feel of another man broken by war, holding no secrets back (he’s not the usual secret Nazi) and seeing Rachael as someone who can help fix him, and he her. While Skarsgard usually plays darker roles (like Clarke), here he presents a graciousness in defeat, and a devotion to his daughter, that stood apart.
Of the remaining cast, Line of Duty’s Martin Compston plays a pantomime villain in all but name, intelligence officer Burnham thinly sketched and offering a face for the British who despise the Germans for the war. It’s a shame a great actor is wasted in this way, his only purpose to provoke other characters into action, while the same goes for his character’s forgettable wife Susan, played by Kate Phillips.
Anna Katharina Schimrigk plays Stefan’s quietly furious daughter, the actress and character a bit vacant however and saddled with a side story that never goes anywhere (the Nazi sympathisers). If given the opportunity to express more (though this is perhaps a choice given her mother has died, and she does eventually show some range later on), I think the character might have played a more memorable role. The same goes for Jannik Schumann, the sympathiser rather one note and rote with no depth, despite the strength of feeling depicted towards the occupiers.
By no means a great film – there are a lot of things The Aftermath could have done a lot better – the three leads, interesting setting and turns taken are positive notes.