When it comes to World War II films it’s rare we get to see a movie set after the actual events. One can only assume this is due to our perception that nothing exciting happened once both sides stopped fighting, yet this simply isn’t true. Enter The Aftermath, a romantic drama set a few months after the end of World War II in British occupied Germany. Yet, despite the fascinating setting, The Aftermath crumbles under the weight of its bland and uninspiring story.
The Aftermath follows British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) after they move into a requisitioned house in Hamburg. Even with her reservations about living with a German, Rachael and the house’s former owner Stefan (Alexander Skarsgard) begin a romantic relationship. What follows is a little under two hours of “will she, won’t she” storytelling as Rachael tries to figure out her feelings for Stefan and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann).
What’s remarkable about The Aftermath is just how by the numbers it feels. Set during an extraordinary time in history, The Aftermath never takes the time to really embrace or use its setting for anything more than a backdrop. It comes off less like a dramatic element of the film and more an excuse to constantly get Lewis out of the house. There are some intriguing moments about Lewis’ perception of the German people, but it’s constantly shoved aside.
There’s also a subplot involving Freda and an ex-Nazi soldier, but it’s completely underdeveloped. Director James Kent spends a minimal amount of time developing this soldier’s motivations, which would be fine if he didn’t become a big part of the film’s climax. In fact, there really isn’t any focus on any Germans outside of Stefan and Freda. Sure, we get some sad shots of the civilians digging out the remains of loved ones and how the maids perceive Rachael, but it never amounts to anything of substance.
It’s window dressing.
Even plot points that are perceived to be major moments in the story are never resolved. One example involves the outline of where a large painting sat on the wall in Stefan’s house. Rachael perceives this to be a painting of Hitler, but when she confronts Stefan about it she never gets a real answer and the matter is dropped entirely. The Aftermath has no big reveal around the painting and the only message we get is that Rachael needs to look past her personal bias of Stefan. It’s not compelling drama, especially since it doesn’t lead to anything particularly engaging.
The one saving grace of this film is the absolutely superb performances from the cast. Knightley, in particular, dominates the screen and masterfully navigates the pain of losing a child to the war. Even with the hammy dialogue, Knightley sells her conflicted affection for Stefan and Lewis. She adds needed depth to Rachael, allowing the character to be more than a starry-eyed lover. Though her relationship with Lewis is perhaps the most potent aspect of The Aftermath.
Typically the spouse who is getting cheated in is a thankless role, but The Aftermath does a remarkable job at humanizing Lewis. He’s not abusive or outwardly cruel to Rachael, just emotionally broken. Pegged as a German sympathizer, you can really tell that Lewis just wants to make everything right. While the reasoning behind it may appear cheesy at first, Clarke sticks the landing when he lays all his cards on the table.
Most of this is due to his acting, which walks a fine line between being emotionally unavailable, yet he’s still a dedicated husband trying to make the best of things. The Aftermath never views him as the bad guy, just another unfortunate soul who the war has deeply affected. It’s hard not to root for Lewis, despite how he tries to simply move past his son’s death. When the third act kicked in I was more concerned for him than Rachael, which speaks to how well Clarke sold his pain.
Stefan doesn’t get off as easily. It’s not that Skarsgard doesn’t give a convincing performance, just his character arc doesn’t amount to anything meaningful. The film bends over backwards to prove he is a good person, which removes any danger or sense of mystery. Even though the film frames his relationship with an Englishwoman as taboo, you never feel as if there are any stakes.
No one is threatening to hurt them or riot if the duo ends up together. It’s a romantic drama that actually lacks any real drama. Sure, it would be a shame if they were caught together but The Aftermath never establishes what would happen if they fall in love. This sucks all of the tension out of the story and there’s rarely any moment when you believe the duo will be discovered.
The Aftermath is an uninspiring film that boasts a terrific. Despite the great performances from everyone involved, the poor script and pacing hinder what could have been a great romantic drama. Instead, The Aftermath only uses its unique setting as a backdrop and is too afraid to challenge its audience. At its best, The Aftermath is a mildly entertaining melodrama you’d expect to pop up on Lifetime.