Overheated, overwrought, over-furnished and over-dressed, “The Aftermath” is a WWII period piece that squanders another perfectly good Keira Knightley performance in a good looking movie that doesn’t measure up to the costume changes required of its leading lady.
Yes, nobody wears period clothes as well as the runway-ready Keira K. And romances, ill-advised and/or ill-fated, are kind of her thing. The camera adores her in closeup. But in this film, even she can’t act her way past the implausible leaps in plot, the dissonant lapses in character motivation.
She stars as Rachael Morgan, a woman we meet on her way to a winter rendezvous with her Army captain husband (Jason Clarke).
It’s mere months after Germany’s surrender, and Capt. Morgan (Hah!) is stationed in Hamburg, one of the earliest and most telling tests of the Allied strategy of creating air raid firestorms, flattening cities, killing tens of thousands and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Some historians point to Hamburg’s destruction (“Operation Gomorrah”) as very nearly breaking Germany’s back, with the strain it placed on a failing state. But never mind that.
In the movie version of “The Aftermath,” luxury train travel has already returned to Europe, the train station is none the worse for wear and Rachael’s husband, Lewis, has requisitioned a beautifully appointed mansion on the outskirts of the city.
It belongs to Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), an architect who married well, somehow managed to avoid serving in the military or losing even his expensive furniture to the firestorm, looters or Allied spoils-of-war collectors. He has a teen daughter (Flora Thiemann) who is still fond of her Hitler Youth uniform and is tempted by the wrong sorts of German boys who survived with her — the ones with “88” branded on their arms.
What is the eighth letter in the alphabet, WWII buffs?
Captain Morgan is trying to keep these terrorists in check. He’s out to win over “hearts and minds,” by showing courtesy and kindness to the starving, sullen, vanquished foe.
That includes Herr Lubert.
Rachael doesn’t share his magnanimity. She is terse, rude and chilly to Lubert, because she has resisted her husband’s entreaties to let the Luberts remain. She practically hisses at him, refuses to shake his hand and rebuffs him at every turn.
And she wonders why the household staff makes snotty cracks about her in German right to her face.
The one Army wife (Kate Phillips) she can confide in puts her mind at ease. Susan is married to a brutish, mistrusting intelligence officer (Martin Compston), who shows no mercy to the Huns and has taught Susan not to trust them a bit.
Beware the “hate just beneath the surface” she warns Rachael.
Well, that’s catnip to the lonely wife of a properly repressed British officer, years of war under his belt with untold horrors that have passed before his eyes.
Rachael’s bitterness has an explanation. Stefan’s does as well, but he’s not allowed to show it, until that big come-to-terms-with-each-other hissing match between the two.
You can’t say this isn’t well-cast, with Clarke perfectly-suited for this sort of stiff upper lip but broken and hiding it Brit of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” generation.
Skarsgård gives us less to grab hold of, a quiet, humbled man who says that he’s a metal presser, now that his chosen field has been put in limbo until Germany recovers. But all we see him do is chop wood, skulk around the huge, lavishly-furnished estate house and — at the drop of a hat — tumble for the English woman who plainly despises him.
Knightley makes the best of a character whose mood shifts in spurts and starts, from hate to lust to love.
James Kent made “Testament of Youth” earlier in his career, another wartime romance that doesn’t quick stick to your ribs. But he shows us the violence of a handshake-refused and takes a shot at making the occupiers look exactly like American and British films have always made the Occupying Germans come off–boorish, oppressive, capable of callous violence.
There’s even a riff on that “Casablanca/Inglorious Basterds” moment of the arrogant winners singing and drunkenly playing the last Steinway in Hamburg — not Nazis, this time, but Brits belting out Gilbert & Sullivan.
A nice detail — that big blank space with discolored paint over every mantle. It’s where the Fuhrer’s portrait used to hang in the homes of Party members.
But one should never punctuate a hot and heavy animal attraction scene with a comically embarrassing moment of coitus interruptus. There’s no “right” way for these two to play this, as there’s no humor in the movie and no real room for it in all the melodrama.
The screenplay finds no mysteries here, no questions about Lubert’s “cowardice” or his means of avoiding combat, no doubts about his loyalties and humanity, or lack thereof.
The shifts in attitude Knightley and Skarsgård have to act out are abrupt and jarring enough to feel like perfunctory requirements of a melodramatic script.
I mean, they’re both beautiful and all, and she’s got her full wardrobe with her and his wine cellar survived, along with the showpiece house and designer furniture. But come on.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images
Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke
Credits:Directed by James Kent, script by Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse and Rhidian Brook, based on a novel by Rhidian Brook. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:48