As pitches go, what could possibly be more of a slam dunk than a lush period drama with Keira Knightley falling for Alexander Skarsgard in post-World War II Germany? Sadly, director James Kent’s sappy and utterly unconvincing new film The Aftermath shows that even the most foolproof ideas wither in the face of turgid, overripe melodrama.
The film opens in 1945 Hamburg, where the Allies are busy putting a bombed-out and humiliated Germany back in running order. Jason Clarke, badly hamstrung by a role full of blank expressions, plays a British Army colonel named Lewis Morgan who’s in charge of… well, it’s hard to say what exactly. But he’s important enough to requisition the gorgeous estate of a widowed German architect named Stefan Lubert (Skarsgard). Because he’s either sympathetic or a bit of a fool, Lewis allows Stefan and his teenage daughter (Flora Thiemann) to keep living there, albeit in the attic.
Lewis’ resentful wife, Rachael (Knightley), soon arrives to join her husband and is immediately put off by the domestic arrangement. It turns out their child recently died in a German bombing raid, and she’s clearly uncomfortable living under the same roof as the enemy. Until, very quickly, she isn’t….
You don’t need me to tell you that Knightley can be a terrific actress, especially in period dramas like this, which have become her bread and butter. But her character goes from disgust to diving headlong into forbidden passion with astoundingly convenient quickness. You don’t buy it for a second. Her chemistry with the equally easy-on-the-eyes Skarsgard just isn’t there. This is the sort of snogging-away-their-grief nonsense that seems like it would work a lot better in a novel — and probably did when Rhidian Brook wrote that novel in 2013.
There’s a totally superfluous subplot involving Stefan’s daughter falling for a Hitler Youth type, but that never goes anywhere interesting either. Nor does it gel with the A-story we’ve paid our money for: watching Knightley and Skarsgard smolder and clinch as the whole mad world falls apart around them. The Aftermath looks classy and sumptuous and comes with all the swooning, bodice-ripping bells and whistles the trailer promises. But it’s a cold, distant film. It freezes over when it should spark and catch fire. C+
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