The two world wars were catastrophic for countless families. Kids lost their fathers and mothers, or died themselves, in action or as collateral damage. Spouses were separated for years at a time, and, if they managed to reunite, often found their marriages irrevocably changed for the worse.
Director James Kent’s new film, The Aftermath — starring Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, and Alexander Skarsgard — takes one such marriage as its subject. Set in 1946 Germany, it follows the failing union of a British couple, Lewis (Clarke) and Rachel (Knightley) Morgan, and the latter’s adulterous affair with a handsome German widower, Stefan (Skarsgard).
The movie begins with Rachel traveling to Hamburg, where Lewis, a British colonel, is stationed. The two are happy to be reunited, but there is clearly a great deal of unspoken tension between them. Rachel is uneasy in her new home — a stately country manor requisitioned by the British military — and is made all the more so when Lewis allows Stefan and his troubled teenage daughter Freda, who had owned the home before Germany’s defeat, to stay with them.
As the characters are introduced, the story unfolds without surprise. Rachel’s suspicion of Stefan soon turns to curiosity, which then turns to lust. But of course, her attraction is about more than sex. She longs for companionship, excitement, meaning, and validation. Lewis is oblivious to the tensions in the house and neglectful of his wife. A passionate affair begins behind his back, while a subsidiary plotline follows Freda, neglected by her father, as she falls in love with a manipulative young Nazi.
Each character behaves with the most appalling selfishness, and yet each has mitigating reasons for doing so. The Morgans, we soon learn, lost their eleven-year-old son in a bombing raid. Lewis silently blames Rachel for the boy’s death, and Rachel resents him for blaming her. Stefan lost his wife in similar circumstances and is so consumed with his own grief that he barely thinks of Freda. Freda aids and abets her Nazi boyfriend, but we’re inclined to forgive her anyway, because she, too, has been left motherless by the war.
The film is improved by profound aesthetic contrasts: the elegant gowns and period furniture of the Morgans’ country home are juxtaposed with the bomb-damaged buildings and starving bodies of the German city. If nothing else, this adds a layer of variety to an otherwise predictable story, as do token sex scenes and occasional violence.
To be fair, the story it isn’t altogether boring. Generally, the dialogue and characterization are compelling. Knightley skillfully combines vulnerability and passion. When she bursts into tears, we believe her. But the scenes that explore the nature of war — which is perhaps the more interesting theme here — are lagging. It is never made clear, for instance, what it is that Lewis is doing in Hamburg. He may have PTSD from the war, but instead of having it brought to life in flashbacks or otherwise explained, we’re forced to make do with the occasional sidelong reference to his combat experiences. The threat of Freda’s Nazi boyfriend is similarly ill-developed and proves little more than a catalyst for a narrative resolution that otherwise might not have arrived.
Despite these weaknesses, Kent manages to pull the film out of the fire at the end, as Rachel achieves a measure of redemption: Given the option of leaving Lewis, she returns to him instead, and he forgives her. Stefan is understanding and lets her go. It’s not the most original conclusion in the world, but it works, tying a neat bow on an otherwise-average moviegoing experience.