The Aftermath loses its nuance moving from page to screen
Immediately following World War II the homes of German folk were requisitioned by the British military to house soldiers during reconstruction. It’s a time not often covered in film, and if The Aftermath is any indication, it’s because this period was extremely boring and populated with characters of such dubious integrity that to spend any time with them at all is an affront to one’s own sanity. By every metric, The Aftermath is a terrible movie which, had it the gall to follow through with the tone of a mid-film sex scene specifically designed to titillate the viewer, would have at least landed at “fun trash.” Alas, it’s a very serious undertaking, leaving us with the much more simple designation of “regular trash.”
Keira Knightley plays Rachael Morgan, our hero. Our selfish, racist, unbearably amoral hero who is framed as “since she suffered misfortune, she’s now allowed to hurt anyone she pleases and that’s okay because if bad things happen to you, you are no longer responsible for your actions.” She and her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British Colonel assigned to the reconstruction efforts, are posted in a giant German household for the duration of his appointment. Since Lewis is a decidedly nicer person than his monster of a wife (he’s got problems too, to be fair, but we don’t now about them quite yet, and they really amount to “he’s dumb”), he suggests that the German family who previously owned the home should be permitted to stay on as help. To Lewis, the most important thing is to move forward from the horrors of the war, and treat the recovering civilians as the human beings that they are. The film takes great pains to let us know that this family was not affiliated with the Nazi party — they’re just Germans who managed to survive the war somewhat in tact.
This family consists of widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter, both of whom are happy to remain in their household rather than being relocated to a camp. Naturally, this means that while Lewis is out and about facilitating reconstruction (and mitigating the jingoistic and vengeful tendencies of his power drunk colleagues) his wife and Stephen start banging. Why? Because they both need each other or something. You see, since they both have suffered loss, they’re allowed to be home wreckers. It’s only fair, you see. Bad things happened to them, so now they get to be bad and that’s good.
It is my belief that the film wants us to understand this hot and steamy relationship, or at the very least, to be turned on by it enough not to care. But to that end, the romance is about as sexy as a flea market. Yes, Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård are both physically attractive, but their chemistry is inert. If you’re trying to sell me on this affair, the least you can do is make it look like they’re interested in one another for reasons better than “because the script says so.” I’m not even really sure how it all begins either. They’re bickering one day because she’s being a jerk, so he kisses her and then they’re off to the races. They’ve maybe had two conversations at this point. Their third conversation involves him entering her while she repeatedly says “no” but then gives in. Ya know, like consent.
Now I’m just steamrolling for the hell of it, so allow me to pump the brakes and offer a few compliments. First, the film looks fantastic. The period detail is rich, and much of it looks to be practically built. Also, all things said, the performances are solid. Knightley is believable in her portrayal of Rachael, even if Rachael is the worst. It’s almost as if she’s done this kind of role before over and over and over and over again. Clarke is fantastic, even if Lewis is emotionally closed off to a fault and a bit dumb to boot. Skarsgård fares the worst, jumbling his accent in every line, all in service of a non-entity, but oddly enough, he seems to understand that there’s not much more to do with his character than exist, so exist he does!
The Aftermath is based on a novel, which is most certainly the preferred medium for this story, where I’m sure it works better. I’d bet rose can be used to properly motivate these characters, which would also serve to make their decisions feel like more than just empty self-gratification. But we’re not here to review the book. This is a movie — a murky, boring movie that doesn’t earn the loose moral lens through which it has chosen to frame the story.
The Aftermath opens in Philly theaters today.