Review: Handsomely mounted 'The Aftermath' an emotionally blunted World War II romance

Updated 3/21/2019 8:11 AM
  • A German architect (Alexander Skarsgård) welcomes Colonel Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) to his house in James Kent's "The Aftermath."

    A German architect (Alexander Skarsgård) welcomes Colonel Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) to his house in James Kent's "The Aftermath." Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

"The Aftermath" -- ★ ★

James Kent would seem to be the ideal director for the World War II romance "The Aftermath" given that his 2015 debut feature "Testament of Youth" received critical acclaim for juxtaposing intimate scenes with a sweeping WWI backdrop.

The only thing sweeping in the dramatically underpowered "The Aftermath" would be rescue teams sweeping through bombed buildings while searching for survivors.

But give "The Aftermath" credit for eye-popping production design and gorgeous cinematography. And it has an even more gorgeous leading lady in Keira Knightly.

This soap-sudsy post-WWII romantic drama of betrayal and pain takes place in 1946 Hamburg, Germany, where two wounded families sort through the emotional debris of their own loss and guilt.

The story, based on Rhidian Brook's 2013 best-seller, creates a classic romantic triangle between British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), his German-hating wife Rachael (Knightley), and a sad, quietly smoldering German architect named Stephan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).

On the outskirts of a rubble heap that used to be Hamburg, the Morgans move into a large, posh estate house confiscated from Lubert, who, along with his troubled teen daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann), must relocate into an Allied camp.

Polite and reserved, Lubert uses good manners and restraint to mask the loss of not only his home, but also his late wife, who was killed during an Allied bombing.

Colonel Morgan can relate. He, too, suffers from the loss of his only son to a German bomb. In a moment of compassion, Morgan decides to let the Luberts stay in their own house, but in the attic, where they can keep out of Rachael's way.

While the colonel goes out rounding up renegade Nazis killing Allied troops, Lubert and Rachael gradually turn their animosity into attraction, culminating in a curiously dispassionate yet highly tactile love scene with an obligatory tasteful montage of intertwined body parts.

(Sharp observers might guess that a body double gives Knightley some intertwining assistance.)

But the dings are in the details of "The Aftermath," which appears to have left small chunks of exposition in an editor's memory chip.

Young Freda lashes out at her father, saying that Mother was right in calling him "a coward." Why? It's never fully explained.

Freda's seduction and conversion by a young renegade Nazi (using her to get information about Colonel Morgan) feels shortchanged and too conveniently resolved.

Then, during a pivotal scene, Rachael returns from Hamburg to her house by walking up a long driveway.

How did she get there? Drive? Where's her car? Did she hitchhike, take an Uber? Or walk all the way home?

For Knightley, playing Rachael should be second nature, having already starred in a far superior World War II romance "Atonement."

But Clarke supplies the single surprise in the cast.

Although he remains one of the most opaque actors working in films, his unreadable, placid expressions ideally match his emotionally parched colonel, and set us up for an anguished catharsis in a movie that desperately needs one.

• • •

Starring: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke

Directed by: James Kent

Other: A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Rated R for language, nudity, sexual situations. 109 minutes

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