For all the diversity in her career to date, it seems impossible to fathom that Keira Knightley will not be remembered in film history predominantly for her willowy period romances. Even the more daring Collette! Oh, but she does them so well. Even if The Aftermath is by no means a top tier entry in the Knightley catalogue – far from it – the star looks divine, emotes splendidly and willows like none other of her generation.
Here, Knightley plays Rachael Morgan – no duchess but in possession of some particularly glamorous numbers – the bereft wife of British Forces colonel Lewis (Jason Clarke). He’s been stationed in bomb-wasted Hamburg and, just five months on from the end of the Second World War, she’s ready to join him. It’s eminently clear from the outset that there’s a PAST here – a fumbled reunion kiss here, an emotional breakdown there – and that recent history has come between them. Essentially, they’re a metaphor for the whole world. This being the sort of prestige picture in which precious little surprises, it shouldn’t take more than a single guess to pinpoint the schism.
Hamburg has more pressing concerns though. Nazi sympathisers lurk in the shadows and in the rubble and beneath the bitter winter frost lie twenty-seven thousand missing corpses. High ranking Germans are being turfed from their positions and homes to make way for British interlopers, while tension is rife in every intake of breath. Lewis, however, is a decent sort. He and Rachael have been assigned a charming mansion, formerly owned by hunky German widower Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thriemann). Unwilling to see father and daughter on the streets, Lewis offers a compromise; a shared house arrangement, with the Luberts in the attic and Morgans in the house. Naturally, it’s not long before an indignant Rachael has fallen for the brooding charms of Stefan. If their resultant affair fails to convince as being driven by love, by no means is it short on passion. Six years of wartime abstinence is satiated with vigour enough to make Atonement seem entirely tame. What a prude Saoirse Ronan was back then.
Oddly, romance and emotional impact are notable absences in The Aftermath, certainly in comparison to Joe Wright’s Oscar winning weepie. The cast are strong enough in isolation but their characters feel lacking, with regard to development and consistency. Knightley and Clarke might put their all into scenes that require visceral devastation but director James Kent fails to foster the sense that such emotions are always tucked away within his leads. When the memory of recent losses sees Rachael erupt into floods of tears, after a lovely little piano rendition of Clair de Lune, its impressive to witness in terms of Knightley’s capacity to do so but hardly moving. There’s just no heart to it.
Hardly conducive to emotional investment is the join the dots predictability of Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script, adapted from the book of Rhidian Brook, which was itself inspired loosely by a true story. The pace is gracefully glacial and trajectory entirely expected. Nothing happens beyond the typical for Knightley fare and exposition comes neatly ladled with an ease that almost makes it feel natural: ‘We dropped as many bombs on Hamburg in one weekend as they did on London in the whole war’. Almost. A weaker cast might have crumbled or, at the very least, succumbed to the soapy cigarette box smouldering of a ropey romance.
In a wholly inappropriate – if not unusual – twist, among the film’s saving graces is Sonja Klaus’ gorgeous production design and the warm cinematographic aesthetic delivered by Franz Lustig. The film opens with the bird’s eye view of bombs blooming like flowers in a meadow metropolis, before fading into some of the most beautiful ruins ever captured on film. Knightley glides through the wreckage of thousands of lives like a swan on sewage, dressed head to toe in priceless frocks and furs. There are points of nuance in the film but they’re few and far between.