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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Aftermath

Sparks might fly between Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård, but this wartime romance feels finished before it starts.
By Sarah Ward
April 11, 2019
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The Aftermath

Sparks might fly between Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård, but this wartime romance feels finished before it starts.
By Sarah Ward
April 11, 2019
  shares

A couple embraces. A man thrusts. The next shot shows, from above, a car driving directly up a straight road. Viewers everywhere can put two and two together. The cut from one to the other is actually meant to be subtle, segueing from an adulterous duo to the man they've cuckolded — but it's also meant to complete a tastefully sensual picture. That's The Aftermath in a nutshell: prim, proper and discreet; brandishing plenty of emotions underneath; and obvious even though it's trying desperately to remain restrained. You could say the same about many period dramas starring Keira Knightley, and you'd be right, however this one particularly sticks to the familiar template.

Dressing up in her 20th-century finest as she did in Atonement, A Dangerous Method and The Imitation Game, Knightley plays British military wife Rachael Morgan. After spending most of the Second World War alone, even when bombs were dropping on London, she now joins her colonel husband Lewis (Jason Clarke) in Hamburg. He's been tasked with overseeing the city's enormous rebuilding project, and she's once again left in their acquired home while he works. This time, she has the grand building's original owner, brooding German widower Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), for company.

Whether you've read Rhidian Brook's 2013 novel of the same name or you're coming to The Aftermath with fresh eyes, guessing what comes next couldn't be easier. No film is going to let Knightley and Skarsgård roam around a sprawling, stately mansion without taking the blatant next step, not even when the story is set immediately after such widespread devastation. Accordingly, while Knightley starts out staring daggers and Skarsgård smoulders sorrowfully in knitted jumpers, it doesn't take long for director James Kent to connect the dots. But in making its post-war romance so straightforward, the movie lacks the one thing every torrid affair thrives on: passion.

An absence of passion isn't the same as an absence of emotion, and lacking one particular quality isn't the same as purposefully holding back in general. The Aftermath doesn't skimp on histrionics, or on creating an elegant mood, but the end result is just so dutiful and formulaic. Indeed, it's hard to feel for characters caught in a love triangle, let alone get swept away by their amorous entanglements, when every plot development is as glaring and forceful as the many bombed-out buildings lining Hamburg's streets. And the less said about the movie's unconvincing attempts to dig into deeper territory — courtesy of Stefan's Nazi-sympathising teenage daughter (Flora Thiemann), as well as his own thorny past — the better.

Kent previously combined matters of the heart with the horrors of combat in 2014's First World War romance Testament of War, which proved both handsome and heartfelt. While The Aftermath isn't helped by its script, the filmmaker has only managed to tick one of those boxes here. There's no denying the film's rich imagery, which recreates the time with stellar detail. That said, there's also no denying that cinematography, costuming and production design rank among the movie's best traits. Pretty pictures are part and parcel of any period drama, but when they steal the show above all else, it's never a good sign.

They mightn't always succeed, however Knightley and Skarsgård endeavour to stand out — against the eye-catching scenery and routine narrative, and despite their star-crossed lovers barely being given any depth. Although neither actor is asked to rise to any challenges, when sparks fly between them, it's easy to wish they were carrying a better film. In a way, that's The Aftermath's big problem. So certain of its stars' power, it thinks that the two can simply carry the entire movie. In fact, it largely squanders Clarke in the process. But, even with gorgeous visuals and a striving cast, the heart still wants what the heart wants: in this case, a story that doesn't feel finished before it starts.

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