On paper, The Aftermath would appear to possess the makings of a period drama classic. Ticking all the necessary genre boxes, the adaptation of Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel boasts a talented cast, impeccable production design, and slick cinematography. Still, something doesn’t quite smell right. Never able to outmatch the sum of its individual parts, James Kent’s sophomore feature has no pulse, resulting in a predictable, paint-by-numbers wartime romance that never strays from the formula long enough to do anything surprising — all the while touting itself as a passionate, forbidden fling for the ages.
In the months following the Allied victory, British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) reunites with his estranged wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) in Hamburg, where they have overtaken the lavish home of widower German architect Stefan (Alexander Skarsgård). Rather than sending Stefan and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) to the work camps with their fellow countrymen, Lewis allows them to remain on the property, keeping to the upstairs quarters. However, with her husband busy helping the British forces run the damaged German city and her marriage failing to restore itself after their son’s death, Rachael begins a taboo affair with Stefan, whose activities during the war soon come into question.
By its very existence, The Aftermath seems to be bent on drawing your eye to how staged everything is. It’s nearly impossible to get wrapped up in these characters’ lives when the viewer can’t shake the fact that they’re actors in costumes reading from a script. Their story never feels remotely real. Occasionally, it remembers its aim to be a steamy and sensual fantasy, which functions well on a purely exploitation level, but then it will self-undercut by looking at the crippling despair of World War II. The romance between Rachael and Stefan is thoughtlessly crammed into the back half of the movie, and so the audience is never given sufficient time or explanation to root for their affair. In fact, the film spends much more energy making the case against their pairing, as any time the two are intimate the camera tediously zooms in on the wedding band on Rachael’s left ring finger.
As with many films of this ilk, there were several avenues Kent (Testament of Youth) could have taken when adapting this tale, leaving him spoiled for choice. The Aftermath sees each of the paths set out before it (as a treatise on the moral ambiguity of war, as a pulpy soap opera courtship, as a stone-faced exploration of the remnants of fascism in postwar Germany, etc.) and briefly travels on each when sticking to one to its logical conclusion is the wiser move. By opting for breadth over depth, Kent misses out on the innate richness of his film’s core premise.
But the stunning vintage clothes and handbags should sate
viewers who go to the movies simply for the period detail. However, anyone searching for emotional resonance (or, God forbid, entertainment) won’t have much luck here. It’s not an abhorrent film; it’s just little more than a palate cleanser. There’s a compelling tale found within Brook’s source material, but Kent hasn’t dug it up here.