Consumed by its own chilliness, The Aftermath is an emotionally constipated movie about emotional constipation. That may come off as a glib way to describe something that purports to explore the paralyzing nature of grief, but James Kent’s romantic historical drama falls so flat that any sense of tragedy is lost; it’s all surface, and stasis.
On paper, it should work — I haven’t read Rhidian Brook’s acclaimed 2014 novel, but it sounds intriguing. Keira Knightley plays Rachael Morgan, who travels to bombed-out Hamburg in 1946 to join her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British colonel helping oversee the de-Nazification and rebuilding of postwar Germany. They move into a sprawling, perfectly preserved mansion belonging to once-wealthy widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). The home has been requisitioned by the Allies, and the relations between the two families is initially tense. Nevertheless, Lewis suggests that the Luberts remain in the home, living in an annex.
Both families have suffered great loss during the war: Lewis and Rachael’s young son Michael was killed in a London bombing raid, and Stephen’s wife was killed during the Allied firebombing of Hamburg. And they’re all having a tough time confronting their grief: Stephen barely mentions his wife, while we see only brief glimpses of little Michael, first in pictures that are hastily put away, then in fleeting flashbacks. Lewis shows no agony, while Rachael hides her grief until she’s alone; in a nice touch, she has brought a little red sweater that once belonged to her boy, as a reminder of how he looked, felt, and smelled.
The characters’ psyches are reflected and expanded by the setting. The stately, undamaged mansion, with its Mies van der Rohe chairs, its Steinway piano, and splendid views of the Elbe, feels like a place out of time, while the broader chaos outside — the streets are covered in rubble, the buildings bombed-out, the people shell-shocked and bitter — is the opposite extreme. The only choice available in a mad world like this appears to be between total devastation or complete denial. Much of Lewis’s time is spent chasing Nazi dead-enders attempting to resist the Allied occupation, and he’s a kindred spirit with the people he’s pursuing in one particular way; they all refuse to confront the horrific reality of their lives. In Lewis’s case specifically, he can’t see that Stephen and Rachael are growing closer together. But their union seems inevitable, not just because they’re played by the ravishing duo of Knightley and Skarsgård, but also because they’re conjoined in mourning: Though neither can quite express it, Stephen and Rachael both speak the halting language of loss, unsure of what to put away and what to hold onto.
If I’m making this film sound secretly great, that’s because I’m slightly baffled by how cold it left me. As I said, it should work. But both Knightley and Skarsgård, who are ordinarily quite fine actors, fail to evoke any sense of complexity, or the kind of layers that allow us to recognize a feeling as genuine. They go through the motions of icy reserve and yearning curiosity and possibly doomed passion, but I kept waiting for the moment when one or the other would spring to life as a person — when we might be treated to some genuine vulnerability or a surprising insight that will add dimension to these characters. They don’t have any chemistry either, but the problem goes beyond that. I didn’t buy her as a grieving parent, and I didn’t buy him as a conflicted, mournful widower — and consequently, I didn’t buy the two of them as illicit lovers. Their whole journey is programmed, with each stilted step telegraphed way ahead of time.