Can Keira Knightley walk and emote at the same time? That’s the big question on my mind after The Aftermath, a movie in which the whole world seems to stop every time her character needs to have a cry. It’s frustrating to spend your life trying to convince people that period pieces are good, actually, only to then see one that feels like an embittered history teacher’s punishment assignment. It’s the kind of movie where sumptuously costumed actors swoon and wail as if to convince us that the past was Serious and Important, while forgetting that the players in it were real people.
Keira Knightley plays Rachel Morgan, who’s been reunited with her British officer husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke) at his new post helping to administer and rebuild post-war Hamburg. They’ve requisitioned the palatial mansion of a German architect, Lubert, played by Alexander Skarsgård. Rather than toss him and his daughter out on the street, where gangs of Hitler loyalists with 88 tattoos are waging guerrilla raids against the occupation, Lewis lets Lubert stay upstairs in his own mansion. Lewis’s hardliner colleagues take to calling him “Lawrence of Hamburg,” on account of he’s kind of a softie towards the Germans.
If you’ve seen the poster you can probably imagine what happens between Rachel and Lubert. And that’s fine, but it’s one of those movies where it feels like the poster is the only thing driving the narrative. These things happen because the pitch meeting said so.
Which is to say that right up until the moment Rachel and Lubert kiss, they have zero chemistry. She initially hates him, along with all Germans, because her son died in the blitz. He initially resents her rudeness and the casual way the British scapegoat him, ignorant to the realities of living under totalitarian rule. “I was against everything the Nazis stood for,” he says. But one night Rachel and Lubert get into an argument and he plants a non-consensual kiss on her and suddenly the affair is on. Nothing really led up to this affair and it doesn’t really make sense based on the information given, but alas, the Plot Outline Decrees It.
The Aftermath, directed by James Kent, from a script by Joe Schrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, and Rhidian Brook, adapting from Brook’s 2013 novel, seems to have no interest in setting up its plot points and takes no joy in them once they arrive. The goal is merely to get through the list.
Rachel’s grief is initially the reason she hates Lubert. Then it’s the reason she pushes her husband away, and then it’s the reason she responds to Lubert’s advances. (Ah, grief, the all-purpose character motivation!) Knightley and Scarsgard share a limp sex scene, that cuts laughably between disembodied breasts and loins and the characters’ cooing, yearnful faces in a way that just screams “we used body doubles!” Jason Clarke fares a little better as a kind of cucked Humphrey Bogart, but it could just be that he gets less screen time. Kent’s method of conveying a character’s sadness is generally to pin the camera on their face while they weep for 30 or 40 seconds. Does anyone enjoy watching this?
So many plot points are so clumsily conveyed as to be laughable. When Rachel finds out Lubert’s wife, who has been absent for the first 20 minutes of the film, died in the bombing, she seems shocked, as if she’d never considered that a conspicuously absent wife in a city 80% destroyed by bombs might’ve died in the war that just happened. When a guerrilla shoots at Lewis’s car with a rifle from the woods, at night, Lewis immediately stops the car and jumps out, to chase the bandit, who has the high ground, cover, and a rifle, with his pistol. When the characters in a period piece act so strangely, it puts history under glass. The past becomes an anodyne, mythical thing, where events take place because they were preordained rather than as a confluence of factors.