There have been several post-war films throughout the years that deal with the reconstruction of Germany, the most notable two for this writer being Lars Von Trier’s Europa and Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero. And while other examples are not difficult to find, there are very few within mainstream cinema. The Aftermath is a new historical drama from director James Kent (Testament of Youth) and it explores such historical themes while proposing a frustrating predicament to its audience… stick with me; I’ll get to that.
The film follows Rachael and Lewis Morgan (Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke), a British husband and wife who settle into a military-acquired house formerly owned by a German father and daughter (Alexander Skarsgård and Flora Thiemann). Five months have passed since the war ended and the British military have moved into Germany to rebuild. German citizens have been corralled into camps and their homes given to English soldiers and their families. Lewis allows the father and daughter to stay on, living in the attic quarters of their former mansion, much to his wife’s disapproval. Anti-German sentiments are high, and visa versa for those who have been displaced. The war might be over, however the country is in a perpetual state of unrest.
The Aftermath is an aptly titled film based on a 2013 novel of the same name by author Rhidian Brook, and while the book provides the film with its overarching storyline, it also gives us a plot sodden with melodrama and schmaltz. Racheal succumbs to temptation and falls in love with the German father, all the while his own daughter is secretly cavorting with a Nazi teenager. Their tangled web of deception leads to a quagmire of dramatic and sexual tensions, all of which bring about the aforementioned predicament confronting the audience.
We are essentially presented with two films and our hand is forced to choose one over the other. There’s the historically fascinating story of Germany’s reconstruction, and then there’s the sordid love triangle with its problematic teenage angst subplot. I am personally more inclined to want to pursue the former, and yet I have no choice but to follow the melodrama. And so be it (that is the gist of the book, after all).
The story of Rachael’s love affair with Stephan (Skarsgård) is run-of-the-mill stuff and it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. And it’s not handled particularly well — at least not subtly. Their passion erupts from out of the blue, without much subtext whatsoever to give it impact, and the script replies on a series of irritating close calls to give the story its tension. The screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Race, Frankie & Alice) is so concerned about reaching its climax that it forgets to take stock of the humanity encompassing its characters. Various scenes involving the ghettos and British dinner parties remind us of the surrounding post-war environment, but there’s little substance to make us care.
With that said, the strength of The Aftermath is its impressive cast and their superb performances. Keira Knightley gives a well-measured turn as the conflicted wife whose marriage is dissolving following the death of her child, while Alexander Skarsgård is perfectly cast as the mild-mannered German whose own trauma parallels hers. German actress Flora Thiemann makes an impressive English-speaking debut as the anguished daughter and despite having only a few lines of dialogue she provides an anchor-point for Knightley and Skarsgård to revolve around. Australian actor Jason Clarke continues his Hollywood domination with an outstanding performance as the high-ranking military officer torn between his duty to country and his love for his wife. His character trajectory is the film’s most reasoned and articulated, and Clarke is exceptional. This, alongside his recent role in Pet Sematary, is his most powerful and emotionally charged performance to date.
The Aftermath is a moderately effective – yet emotively shallow – melodrama of the Nicholas Sparks caliber; one set against an fascinating yet frustratingly underutilised backdrop. Perhaps the post-war German setting will inspire someone else to tell that story… and if they do, I’ll be there, front row and centre (figuratively speaking… I prefer 5-rows back beside the isle).
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘The Aftermath’ is in Australian cinemas from April 11.