The Aftermath (2019)
There are many reasons a beautifully made film like The Aftermath (2019) ends up critically panned. Some describe it as slow, melodramatic, and predictable, but such labels often reflect unfulfilled viewer expectations rather than an ill-conceived or poorly executed film.
Set in 1946, the plotline is straightforward with few surprises other than its final moments. It opens with British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Keira Knightley) arriving in the devasted city of Hamburg to restore law and order, as well as to root out remaining Nazi sympathisers. The thoroughly middle-class Morgans have requisitioned a stately mansion owned by architect Stephan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgárd) and his rebellious daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). Lewis is a compassionate man who cannot bear to send the Luberts to a squalid refugee camp and invites them to stay in the attic, setting the tension lines that drive the film. When someone remarks that more bombs were dropped on Hamburg in one week than were dropped on London in one year, we enter an inverted moral paradigm where the line between victory and vanquished turns grey.
The slow start has a purpose. Few films respectfully explore the humiliation of defeat and many viewers would ask ‘why should they’? The Aftermath dwells on prolonged moments where the victor strolls in and takes over the home of the vanquished; where a population is deliberately starved to keep them compliant; where a once-proud culture must confront its inner demons. Deep unresolvable grief permeates the city as well as the lives of the Morgans and the Luberts. Both lost loved ones and the times are not sympathetic to healing. In the middle of this swirling emotional vortex, a classic ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ sub-plot becomes the narrative device for rebuilding lives.
This film stands out in the war-drama genre because of its nuanced portrait of the immediate aftermath of the Allied occupation of Germany. It reeks of period authenticity in ways that only British films can do. The stunning cinematography captures the horror of the immediate post-war period without the usual reliance on the tropes of military casuality and destruction. Knightley and Clarke’s performances are outstanding, while Skarsgárd adequately fills the role of a grieving, if over-confident, romantic antagonist. As happens so often, Knightley’s commanding presence and extraordinary range of emotional versatility stamps her ownership all over the film.
If history is only written by winners it will always only be half-true. The Aftermath is an essay about the other half, blending sufficient historical insight into a romantic drama to hold our interest without emotional sledgehammers. There are minor lapses of pace, maybe a narrative digression or two that dilutes momentum; but overall, this is a satisfying film that takes an uncommon view on unexplored cinematic territory.
Director: James Kent
Stars: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Alexander Skarsgárd, Flora Thiemann