It started with a chair. An uber-modern reclining chair teaches Rachel Morgan (Keira Knightley) that not all Germans in post-war Berlin are her enemies. Said chair belongs to her German host, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who is billeting Rachel and her husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), in his lavish home as the Brits and Allies sweep the nation of Nazis following the war. Rachel isn’t happy about being in enemy territory, but it’s not long after relaxing her posterior on Herr Lubert’s seat that she soon finds herself reclining on his dining room table with her legs straddling his thighs. Who knows what the German translation is for “That’s one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet,” but the Morgans might want to google it.
The Aftermath has another doodle, or maybe pickle, in that it has the same sense of malaise that troubles the Morgans’ marriage. It’s as if everyone on set realized that they weren’t filming the Oscar contender they signed up for, but, good Brits that they are, soldiered on and got the job done. However, anyone who signed up to the prestige picture expecting Oscar gold surely couldn’t have read the novel by Rhidian Brook on which The Aftermath is based – a lethargically meandering bestseller whose popularity is truly inexplicable.
The predicament of how allies and rivals repair wounds ravaged by war fuels this adaptation of The Aftermath, which, while imperfect, greatly improves upon the novel. (Especially the ending.) The film, like the book, finds a great love triangle in the relationship of the Morgans and Lubert once Lewis permits the good German to remain in his luxurious home, rather than go to the camps where many suspected members of the Nazis were forced to go as the Allies performed a clean sweep of the country. Rachel refuses to trust Lubert while Lewis wants to make the best of it, and the bipolar approach that the wife and husband have to the aftermath of war demonstrates the lingering effects of grief. The Morgans, the film reveals, lost their son when the Germans dropped bombs on Britain. Lubert is the face Rachel chooses for the killer of her son, so she’s understandably ill at ease sleeping under the same roof as the enemy. Once she tries that chair, though, sleeping with the enemy is pie.
The adaptation by Brook, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse streamlines the novel effectively, parsing away its sluggishness and amplifying its soapiness. It’s an old-fashioned affair for mature audiences, a Harlequin romance for the Atonement crowd as forbidden love between enemies brings both Rachel and Lubert back to life. The film uses Rachel’s inherent distrust in Lubert to ratchet up the sexual tension between them, like how the mysterious faded mark above the mantel presumably leaves a scar on the home where Hitler’s portrait once hung. It’s a niggling suspicion that eats away at Rachel every time she sets eyes on her sexy German housemate, but bad boys turn her on as Skarsgård’s brooding performance conveys the longing Lubert seeks to fill the void left by his wife, who died during an air raid.
The losses that both Rachel and Lubert experienced during the war are accentuated by the fact that the film drops the Morgans’ younger son and lets Knightley embellish her character’s sense isolation when Lewis can barely be bothered to drop a tear for their dead boy. In cutting out the couple’s second son, the film also benefits from losing the needlessly convoluted storylines between the boy and Lubert’s daughter, Freda, and their playtime with the Hitler Youth. Freda remains in the film and is brought to life in an effective performance by Flora Thiemann as Freda wrestles with the beliefs that were hammered into her head during the war. These thoughts linger in her friends, lost boys eager to continue the Nazis’ fight in the Fuhrer’s absence. Some moments between Freda and her friend/mentor Albert (Jannik Schümann) are especially effective interpretations of how a generation tires to make sense of its reality when it has been raised on a lie.
The film realizes the hell of post-war German through striking production design and strong visual effects that place everyday action in the shells of bombed-out buildings in a landscape of rubble and debris. (The music by Martin Phipps is also spectacular.) The Aftermath mainly benefits from the trio of performances at its core. Clarke, who is generally boring as an actor, doesn’t bring much to Lewis’s shoes to liven up the love triangle, but the film uses Clarke’s limited range to its advantage. Lewis abandoned Rachel long before she strayed from him and the film casts Clarke as a sad schmuck Knightley’s character needs to escape in order to feel alive. Knightley brings a palpable sense of longing to the part. She conveys Rachel’s thawing rather nicely thanks to her chemistry with Skarsgård, which ultimately makes the outcome bittersweet yet satisfying. Whatever one makes of The Aftermath, it’s a reminder that period films are Knightley’s element – just one of her many genetic gifts.
The Aftermath opens March 22.