Nobody rocks a period frock quite like Keira Knightley and the 34-year-old Brit has built quite a career playing historical figures both real and imagined. From Pride and Prejudice to King Arthur to Atonement, Anna Karenina, A Dangerous Method and The Duchess to the more recent Colette and now The Aftermath, Knightley seemingly revels in the challenge that comes with rendering bygone eras on the big screen. Set in much more recent times than all of the abovementioned films, the events of The Aftermath take place in 1946 but still afford Knightley myriad opportunities to adorn herself with all manner of fashionable clobber as the wife of a British soldier overseeing the reconstruction of Hamburg, a city that has been all but destroyed in the war. Of course, to suggest that Knightley is merely a fashion horse would be a huge disservice because she, as has been the case numerous times before, rises above any shortcomings in the material to outshine her co-stars as a woman frustrated by the circumstances in which she finds herself.
When Rachael Morgan (Knightley) arrives in Hamburg just a few months after the Allied victory, she is confronted with the sight of shell-shocked locals stumbling amongst the piles of rubble which are all that remains of much of the city. Rachael’s husband Lewis (Jason Clarke) is one of the key figures in overseeing the Allied troops in their efforts to maintain order whilst seeking out any remaining Nazi loyalists. Lewis is determined to treat the locals with a modicum of respect, an attitude that isn’t shared by many of his colleagues and the practice of ‘requisitioning’ properties certainly doesn’t engender any goodwill; the locals despatched to refugee camps while Allied servicemen take up residence in their homes. When Lewis and Rachael are presented with a lavish mansion in which to live, Lewis insists that, rather than being sent to a camp, the property’s owner Stephen (Alexander Skarsgard) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thieman) can continue to live in the house, albeit confined to the attic.
Rachael is far from thrilled with the arrangement at first, treating Stephen with a disdain that she makes little effort to mask. Despite an obvious affection that manifests via small gestures from both parties, Rachael and Lewis struggle to find common ground in dealing with the death of their young son and, as she finds herself increasingly isolated (both physically and emotionally) from Lewis, there is only so much time spent in the vicinity of a sexy widower that a girl can take before the inevitable happens and these two beautiful people are getting it on. Exquisite production and costume design (particularly for Knightley) certainly helps to lift what is an otherwise stilted mood as this trio of unhappy people desperately try to find something – anything – that can help mitigate the heartbreak that they have endured. Whilst Freda’s involvement with a group of Nazi sympathisers is perhaps intended to add more tension to the story than it does, it ultimately plays out as somewhat superficial.
There is potentially a great movie to be made in exploring the strained relationships between the victors and the defeated, and certainly the sheer scale of the destruction serves as a sobering reminder of how much hardship those who survived the war were forced to endure long after the fighting stopped, but director James Kent (Testament of Youth) only plays lip service to the challenge faced by characters such as Lewis and the complexities of the situation in which they found themselves. With Skarsgard afforded little opportunity to do much other than look smoulderingly sad/sexy, it is left to Knightley to lift the material, but there is only so much she can do and ultimately The Aftermath falls short of what might have been possible had there been more emphasis on the many thousands enduring hardship and dispossession beyond the walls of the gilded castle in which our triumvirate of lovelorn protagonists remain safely ensconced.