It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Those problems added up to immortal romance cinema for Bogie and Bergman in Casablanca. Things are not so lucky for the love triangle at the core of The Aftermath, a stuffy, soggy slog of a movie that fails to generate sparks or a lick of dramatic sense. Director James Kent — striking out after his striking debut with Testament of Youth — adapts Rhidian Brook’s 2013 bestseller into a swoony potboiler that really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
Here’s the setup in the script by Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel: World War II is over, and Germany is in tatters. In a rebuilding effort in Hamburg, British officers have repossessed better houses. But Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) has a gentleman’s solution. He and his German-hating wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) will share the large home they’ve requisitioned from local architect Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and allow the widower and his resentful teen daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) to share the place with them. In the attic, of course. There are limits to sharing.
It’s all an excuse, really, to allow Rachael and Stephen to get it on while the colonel is off doing what colonels do. You don’t cast the gorgeousness of Knightley and Skarsgård to have them pine away, imagining what it might be like to strip off the period costumes of Bojana Nikitovic and make mad, naked love in the erotic light provided by cinematographer Franz Lustig.
You also can’t have the audience hating on these two adulterers. The script is quick to show us that Stephen is a good German (he hates those damn Nazis) and that Rachael’s marriage is on the rocks. The captain refuses to share his feelings about a family tragedy that nearly destroyed both their lives. On the other hand, Stephen’s emotions are easy to read. The way he brushes his fingers against Rachael’s shoulder speaks volumes of romance novels none of us should ever read. If you don’t cry, there’s a score by Martin Phipps, whose copious strings will cry for you.
Could a worthwhile film actually have been carved out of this tear-jerking mess? It’s possible. The aftermath of war is a resonant topic for any filmmaker willing to dig deeply into the strained relationship between the victors and the defeated. But The Aftermath barely pays lip service, quickly dismissing a subplot about Freda’s hook up with a Hitler youth (Jannik Schümann) and giving short shrift to the colonel’s work with the dispossessed. What’s left is soap opera, leaving suds that even the stellar Knightley, Skarsgård and Clarke can’t rinse off their performances.