From Dunkirk to Darkest Hour, World War II dramas remain a mainstay of British cinema. Yet the immediate fallout after the war, with an Allied victory in 1945, is an area less examined on film. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Rhidian Brook, James Kent’s The Aftermath redresses that balance with a heartbreaking story of loss and love.
Keira Knightley, fresh from her superb turn in Colette, plays Rachael Morgan, who arrives in Hamburg just after the war. Meeting her from the train is her husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), a colonel in the British army, who has been posted there to oversee the reconstruction of a city ravaged by the conflict.
Understandably, Rachael feels great antipathy towards the Germans (for reasons that become even clearer). It’s exacerbated when she discovers she and her husband have been assigned a large and beautifully designed house, formerly owned by German architect and widower Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his troubled young daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann).
Although Stefan and Freda confine themselves to an attic room until they can move out to a camp, things change when Lewis invites them to stay on in the house, much to Rachael’s chagrin. Tensions begin to bubble, although it soon becomes clear that Rachael’s anger – with both Lewis and Stefan – is really masking the tremendous pain of her own losses suffered during the war.
Halfway through, an intriguing twist in the plot – no spoilers here – sends the story spinning in a surprising but electric direction. By the time it’s played out, it’s lent The Aftermath an almost tragic dimension, as it spotlights characters, all of whom have been devastated by the impact of war.
As much as it treads in romantic-drama territory, The Aftermath is really a look at grief and the almost involuntary way in which a person reacts in the most challenging circumstances. Kent (Testament Of Youth), fully gets to grips with the subtext of his story here, in what unfolds as an increasingly sad, poetic tale.
Backed by a highly experienced team – Ridley Scott is among the producers – this is a classy production, harking back to classic movies of the 1940s. Leading the pack, of course, is Knightley, once again proving why she’s one of the best British actresses of her generation; here, she’s not afraid to play dislikeable at times, yet skilfully gains our sympathies by the finale.
Clarke and Skarsgård, both so good last year in First Man and The Little Drummer Girl, respectively, are admirable foils for Knightley, as two men who come to represent very different emotional states for Rachael. Star of Peaky Blinders, Kate Phillips, and Line Of Duty’s Martin Compston also play key roles as a fellow British army couple making the best of it in Hamburg.
Cinematographer Franz Lustig catches the dilapidated post-war atmosphere superbly, and Bojana Nikitovic’s costumes add to the film’s beauty and elegance – most notably a stunning chartreuse ballgown that promises to become as iconic as Knightley’s emerald green evening dress in Joe Wright’s Atonement. With Martin Phipps’ exquisite score lending real resonance, The Aftermath comes into its own in the final act, with revelations and reconciliations. Somehow, Kent forges a happy ending of sorts against the wintry backdrop, one that will heal some wounds – although, as the film makes clear, there are no real winners in life after war.
The Aftermath is out 1 March.