Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Review: "The Aftermath"
"The Aftermath" is one of those tragic period romances that's so sad and affecting, afterward you vow to never love again.
What's the opposite of a romantic comedy? This.
It's a marvelously acted film starring Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård in a love triangle set in post-World War II Hamburg. Knightley is Rachel Morgan, the wife of a British colonel, Lewis (Clarke). Reuniting for the first time since the war began, they live in the mansion that used to belong to a local architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård), but has been requisitioned by the military.
Much of the city has been reduced to rubble, so the newfound opulence in which they live stands in stark contrast to the starving hordes of Germans teeming in the streets.
Lewis is more sympathetic to the conquered Germans than his fellow officers, and allows Lubert and his teen daughter, Fred (Flora Thiemann), to stay in the attic rather than go to one of the squalid relocation camps. This makes for an awkward situation, as Lewis is gone all the time and Rachel bumps around the huge, modernist house while the actual residents shamble about in the background.
Freda is openly hostile, as are many of the German youth. Some even brand their arms with "88" to show their resistance -- a stand-in for the eighth letter of the alphabet, "HH." I think we all know what that means, and where it will lead.
Stephen is accommodating and gracious, though he's nursing a deeply buried resentment over his wife, who died in the Allied bombings of Hamburg. He's forced to work as a machine press operator instead of helping rebuild his country.
It turns out the Morgans have their own, unspoken tragedy: their 11-year-old son was killed in the German bombings of London. Astonishingly, we learn that Lewis never even came home for the funeral.
There's a telling moment at the beginning when Rachel is stepping off the train. She spies other couples reuniting and smiles at their open affection. This is contrasted with the stiff greeting and embrace from Lewis. They've forgotten how to be a couple.
There's a concerted effort to correct this situation, with some longing glances and canoodling. But circumstances intervene and Rachel finds herself drawn to the mournful German under her own roof.
The love scenes between Knightley and Skarsgård are quite steamy. They're both extremely beautiful people, Skarsgård with his long face and tired eyes, and Knightley with her always-open mouth and impossibly angular figure -- she's like a mannequin sprung to life.
It's astonishing to think that Knightley has just turned 34; it seems like she's been in the movies forever. Tonally, this film almost seems a reprise of "Atonement," which if you can believe it was 12 years ago. Though she still looks the ingenue, this is her first picture playing a woman of close-to-middling years. I'm genuinely curious as to where her career takes her next.
In the end, though, it's Clarke's performance that truly impressed me. It's hard to play a man who is stolid and reserved and project any kind of emotional resonance. Yet Clarke gives us the impression of a man who is trapped by duty in his head, but the feeling hasn't yet settled in his heart. His reaction when he learns of the affair will tear at the audience's heart.
Director James Kent comes from a television background, though I realize such distinctions are becoming increasingly blurry. The screenplay is by Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse and Rhidian Brook, based on Brook's novel of the same name.
"The Aftermath" is a terrific film, though not one to leave you feeling wonderful about the world or the people that inhabit it. Sad movies are an acquired taste for most, though this one is a good place to start.