With mislaid alliances and stealthy maneuvering, the Keira Knightley vehicle “The Aftermath,” about an English woman’s affair with the German man whose home she’s occupying in postwar Hamburg, truly is a film that embodies the phrase “the war at home.”
But though it purports to be pleasurable, with taboo trysts unfolding in a palatial estate, this adaptation of Rhidian Brook’s novel feels overly staid, often ridiculous and, sadly, can’t bring the heat.
The setting of Allied-occupied Germany in the months immediately after the war is rich thematic territory, and it begs contemporary comparison. While the people of Hamburg are still digging bodies from the rubble caused by Allied bombing, the British are trying to restore rule and quell insurgent terrorism wrought by those who remain loyal to Hitler. Col. Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) witnesses the desperation every day on the job, from the riots to the rescues to the work camps.
His work stokes his natural empathy. His wife, Rachael (Knightley), who has come to Germany to join him, remains rooted in the past, unable to process the loss of their son, who was killed in a bombing in London. She harbors hatred and fear of the Germans, so when the couple occupy the home of German architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard) and his daughter, Rachael is deeply upset.
But hate is closer to love than indifference, and her heated emotions quickly turn to lust. Brook collaborated with Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel to adapt his novel, but the screenplay doesn’t work, and James Kent’s direction is both scattered and too obvious. Events occur without adequate motivation established, and it doesn’t help that none of the characters are sympathetic, with the exception of Lewis. Rachael is particularly egregious. We take in the story through her point of view, but she’s grating — shrill, insecure, flighty. We know why she’s struggling emotionally, but we’re unable to take in the full scope before the affair is already underway.
Everything feels shortened, condensed or completely predictable. There are many rich veins of inquiry beyond the affair, but they aren’t explored with as much nuance as they could be. What’s most fascinating in “The Aftermath” is what war makes people into — strangers, lovers, terrorists. One can’t help but think of the Islamic State when Stefan’s daughter Freda (an incredible Flora Thiemann) becomes caught up with a local Nazi insurgent who is aiming his ill will toward the British occupiers.
When it comes to the intimate affairs, Kent shoots the sex scenes lovingly. But with this kind of bodice-ripping, one needs actors who can embody a roiling lustiness; Knightley and Skarsgard are both incredibly beautiful, but their performances here are too reserved to sell torrid passion that’s believable. In fact, Clarke, as the remote, cuckolded husband brings far more animalistic desire to the screen.
Clarke also does an incredible job of making Lewis’ emotional toil real as he balances peacekeeping with frustration and fear. And yet the focus of “The Aftermath” is in all the wrong places, spending time with characters in which we are unable to gain an emotional foothold. This misplaced attention makes for an erotic drama that feels cold, and a political thriller that feels empty.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R for sexual content/nudity and violence including some disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Playing: Starts March 15, Arclight Hollywood; The Landmark, West L.A.