' ' Cinema Romantico: The Aftermath

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Aftermath

Set in post-WWII Hamburg, Germany, much of “The Aftermath”, based on a novel by Rhidian Brook, takes place inside a mansion requisitioned by the British, specifically for Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), overseeing efforts to rebuild the city and deal with insurgent attacks, and his wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) who has just arrived from London. If the ornate, pristine interior stands in stark contrast to so much rubble of bombed out buildings outside, it is no haven, marked by a discernible chill, evoked in Rachael’s arrival where, standing on the balcony, admiring the view, she asks to go back inside since it is freezing, as if taking the cold with her. Some of the best shots in the movie are when Knightley just stands rock still inside the mansion as its expansive surroundings seem to swallow her up. Initially Rachael sits on the furniture, Knightley doesn’t even quite sit all the way down, just sort of perching on the edge; this is not home.

It not being Rachael’s home is merely underlined how its previous owners – Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) – are still living there, upstairs in a different annex. This is only because Lewis feels humanist rumblings after witnessing the brutal death of a German in the street, despite this German’s Third Reich sympathy, and extends an olive branch to Stefan. Complications ensue, though they never feel too complicated, if only because Skarsgård is so genteel in his anguish and Freda’s dalliance with a Werwolf is nothing more than mere red herring. No, the real complication is in the relationship between Rachael and Lewis, already strained by the death of their son during The Blitz. With the emergent knowledge that a discoloration on the wall was where a portrait of you-know-who once hung, evoking an apparition of a war that has only nominally concluded, Rachael struggles to believe that everything is now just automatically peachy keen even if Lewis says so, prompting a transonic “you’re shitting me” look at him from her at dinner.

It might seem odd, then, that Rachael and Stefan get it on. But the all-of-a-sudden presentation, where he just plants one on her out of the blue and then, a little later, she just fiercely and without warning kisses him right back, leading to an affair right under Lewis’s nose, does not come across in this context as dubious character motivation but something like physical necessity. She needs someone. He needs someone too, suggested in how his own wife perished during the war. And so when Lewis is called away on a duty for a few weeks, a “Bridges of Madison County” situation germinates, though here, as Stefan takes Rachael as something akin to a marital replacement and Rachael starts doting on his daughter as something akin to her own, it feels less romantic than distressing, coloring scenes like the Stefan and Rachael throwing snowballs at each other in the light of two people having gone round the bend.

Yet rather than follow these characters down the intriguing rabbit hole of role-playing, it opts for forced sentimentality, bringing Lewis back early from his military responsibilities, interrupting this faux family unit and instigating a love triangle. At this point, the tenor of Knightley and Skarsgård’s performances don’t change but the context does, which makes “The Aftermath” come to feel like one of those movies where a climactic twist winds up in a brief montage of revisiting early scenes to cast them in a whole new light, but which we do in our minds instead. And so the scene of Stefan and Rachael throwing snowballs at one another transmutes from a creepy variation on “Rebecca” into Hallmark Channel fluff, the twist, then, in this case being that the whole movie collapses right before your very eyes.

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