As elegant post-war dramas about dark, romantic entanglements go, “The Aftermath” delivers the bare minimum. Director James Kent’s adaptation of Rhidian Brook’s novel is a sweeping, gorgeous, and even wistful look at the clandestine romance between the wife of a British colonel (Keira Knightley) and a German widower (Alexander Skarsgård) in the aftermath of the Allied forces’ victory. But none of the pretty imagery or impassioned lovemaking can break free of a mopey old formula that sits on every scene with the same schematic quality that makes its weary setting so familiar from the start.
Which is not to say it lacks historical vision. Set in Hamburg in 1945, as British forces sort through the ruins and overtake German property, “The Aftermath” finds Knightley’s Rachael Morgan arriving in the city to reunite with her estranged husband Lewis (a stern Jason Clarke). As British forces requisition German homes, Lewis has found one for the couple to resettle. But once they get there, Rachael discovers that the potential for a new beginning comes with a twist: The house’s former inhabitants, Skarsgård’s German architect Stefan Lubert and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), continue to live there while British forces determine whether to exonerate the man of a war crime.
The chemistry is palpable from the moment that lanky Herr Lubert first locks eyes with Rachael, even if she has a hard time sorting it out. Initially baffled by her husband’s willingness to share their abode with a potential war criminal, she casts a condescending gaze whenever he drifts through the hallways, hovering in the shadows with ghostly remove. Over time, however, she finds a mutual lost soul, recognizing that both of them have suffered irrevocable wartime losses that only the spark of companionship can hope to heal.
“The Aftermath” is about as treacly and earnest as that description, and mostly unfolds as a watchable two-hander just a few degrees shy of dull. Kent frames the drama with meaningful glances and ham-fisted emotional showdowns, but cinematographer Frantz Lustig’s delicate imagery ensures that the movie radiates with a complex sense of place.
From the abrupt overhead bombings that open the story to an abrupt showdown on an icy lake, “The Aftermath” delivers extraordinary imagery in tune with an environment both palatial and marred by destruction. Even the sappier bits have a polished exterior. Yes, it’s a tired cliché to have Knightly sit at the living room’s piano under the blue hue of moonlight, playing “Clair de Lune” until she bursts into tears, but the imagery is nonetheless captivating for how it exudes the alienation of a postwar society that once took stability for granted.
Yet no pretty pictures can salvage “The Aftermath” from sinking into familiar melodramatic beats, and it’s here that the actors fail to convince. Knightley and Skarsgård do their best to imbue the material with an erotic charge, but there’s a mechanical quality to their scenes that never quite clicks. Knightley excels at conveying the desperation and desire of a woman keen on rekindling a modicum of passion in a cold world, but Skarsgård — a handsome Swede who sulks like a pro — fails to convince as a native German-speaker grappling with fatherhood and his own festering desires. As the music swells to accompany their evocative lovemaking under bright lights, it’s hard to escape the sensewe’ve been here many times before.
The best star-crossed WWII love stories approach the entangled forces of danger and lust with intrigue (think Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book”), but “The Aftermath” lacks the necessary depth to explore this unusual bond and instead takes Stefan’s claim of innocence at face value. As if to take the onus off that question, the movie shoehorns in a thin subplot involving Stefan’s daughter romancing a Nazi spy, setting the stage for a convenient climax that brings the full scope of the relationship challenge to the foreground.
Once it gets there, the final moments of “The Aftermath” head straight into the most obvious cinematic touchstone in film history, a weepy finale alongside a moving train. Nevertheless, there’s genuine feeling to these closing moments, as Knightley’s character must sort out her conflicting emotions toward her husband, and he confronts his own repressed feelings about how the war has pulled them apart. “The Aftermath” shows enough reverence for this intimate challenge to hints at some measure of profundity. But it takes a long time to get there, and by then, much of “The Aftermath” feels like an afterthought.
Fox Searchlight will release “The Aftermath” on March 15, 2019.