The big, sweeping wartime romance is a Hollywood formula that has fallen out of favour in recent years. In our woke times, moviegoers often want a little more from their romantic movies than soft lighting and a wispy woman being taken into the strong arms of a man in uniform. However, there’s something undeniably cosy about book adaptation The Aftermath, and it’s almost enough to get it over the line. But not quite.
Former history student James Kent, whose last film was First World War tale Testament of Youth, transports the viewer back to Hamburg in 1946 – five months after the Nazi surrender. British colonel Lewis (Jason Clarke) brings his wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) to Germany, taking up residence in a home requisitioned from widower Stefan (Alexander Skarsgård). In a compassionate move, Lewis allows Stefan and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) to continue living in the house.
Knightley’s Rachael is initially cold to her new housemates, isolated in a country she doesn’t understand while her husband tries to tidy up some of the “chaos” that has broken out since the war came to an end. Her feelings towards Stefan begin to thaw – after a ‘surprise kiss’, because sexist tropes refuse to die – and soon her mood has taken a turn for the positive thanks to a German with a frankly incredible collection of knitwear.
The Aftermath benefits from a central trio of solid performances, with Knightley in particular continuing her current career hot streak. Unfortunately, the plotting is very pedestrian and the finished product is essentially just a beige melodrama with some impressively warm cinematography from Franz Lustig. Kent’s directorial interest seems to mostly lie in following Knightley around while she frowns at various things.
There’s a brief flicker of excitement involving a group of neo-Nazis with tattoos of the number 88 – a nod to the initials for ‘Heil Hitler’ – who seduce Freda into their group. This narrative seems set to intersect with the central love triangle and bubbles beneath the narrative, but fizzles to nothing as the noisy melodrama of that plot becomes completely all-consuming.
In an attempt to hark back to the classic romances of Old Hollywood – Kent has cited Brief Encounter as a key influence – The Aftermath gets buried under the weight of cliché. It squanders its impressive supporting cast and intriguing historical context with a story that feels old-fashioned and, given its less than consensual roots, a little unpleasant. There’s no denying that’s a sweeping, handsome movie, but its heart is almost entirely empty.
Dir: James Kent
Scr: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Alexander Skarsgård, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schumann, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips
Prd: Jack Arbuthnott, Malte Grunert, Ridley Scott
DOP: Franz Lustig
Music: Martin Phipps
Country: UK, USA, Germany
Run time: 108 mins
The Aftermath is in UK cinemas from 1st March.