Skip to main content
film review
Open this photo in gallery:

The film is based on the bestselling novel by Rhidian Brook.David Appleby/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp

  • The Aftermath
  • Directed by: James Kent
  • Written by: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse and Rhidian Brook
  • Starring: Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke
  • Classification: 14A
  • 108 minutes


2 out of 4 stars

Postwar trauma and romance make for strange bedfellows in The Aftermath, a campy melodrama from director James Kent, who creates an ill-fated love triangle between a British society lady (Keira Knightley) cloistered in post-Second World War Hamburg with her emotionally deadened army colonel husband (Jason Clarke) and the smouldering potential Nazi sympathizer (Alexander Skarsgard) living in her attic.

Based on the bestselling novel by Rhidian Brook, the film looks and feels expensive with sumptuous cinematography, impressive production design, and silky gowns for Knightley to wear. It dazzles like the perfume commercials she does for Chanel.

To the director’s credit, he also boasts a few flourishes of creativity, such as a score that pulsates like a heartbeat every time Knightley gets kissed. Unfortunately, a weak screenplay co-written by Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel (what a pen name) drags everything down as the film takes a page from every illicit historical romance in history, including prestige pictures like The English Patient and Knightley’s own 2008 venture, The Duchess. Here, bodices get ripped and cheeks get slapped, Third Reich or no Reich, making way for implausible passion from three pretty cold fish. No one’s having fun in this movie, even when they’re doing it on top of the dining room table. The Aftermath is ultimately about shame, guilt, sex and then more shame; how history makes us all into victims, even when we come out on the winning side.

Open this photo in gallery:

Alexander Skarsgard and Keira Knightley in The Aftermath.David Appleby/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp

Our story begins when Rachel (Knightley) and her husband Lewis, a high-ranking officer in the British navy (the Australian thespian Clarke, a stoic method actor with the face of Matthew Perry) repossess an old historic mansion in the bombed-out husk of a former grand city centre. She’s the new lady of the house, trying her best to cope with the death of her son by making passive aggressive comments at the maids and rearranging the furniture. To quote Rhett Butler, Rachel needs to be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.

The dusky mid-century manse, which is a central character with its gold leaf wallpaper and gorgeous antique armoires, was previously owned by Stefan (Skarsgard), a sulky German architect and widower who lives there with his teenage daughter. Thanks to the fall of Hitler, Stefan reluctantly agrees to hand it over to his new tenants. Somehow, out of the goodness of his heart, or maybe just the contrivances of the plot, Lewis agrees to let these good Germans stay against his wife’s protests (complains Rachel, “I think I have the right to know if I am living with a Nazi!”). So they strike up an awkward bargain usually set by first-year dorm mates that each will stick to their own part of the house.

Now scurrying down the hallways and secretly rifling through each other’s belongings, the close quarters and stultifying boredom bring Rachel and Stefan together for the inevitable consummation of some highly repressed sexual desires and a mutual need for tenderness. They eventually make passionate love in one of those crazy sex movie scenes where everyone manages to writhe in passion with all their clothes still half on, just as the other person’s partner is about to walk in through the door.

Everyone in The Aftermath just wants to feel something other than the endless sorrow wrought by their tragic historical conditions. And while Rachel and Stefan are lucky enough to have a sexual outlet to plug a little of their pain into, Lewis’s character is a bit more opaque. Rachel can’t understand him and this movie doesn’t either. While Lewis does seem to want to connect with his wife, he simply doesn’t have the emotional language for it. It is much easier for him to fight Nazis than talk about why his marriage isn’t working. His character must leave for a while, so that Rachel and Stefan can fall for each other, but the scenes in which his character goes about some nonsensical postwar business questioning Nazis in dark rooms derail the film completely.

The Aftermath’s screenplay gives each of its central characters their own story arc, but in ways that steal focus and create larger confusion as to whose movie this is. It should really be Knightley’s story. It is so impressive to see the clenched muscles in the actresses’ jawline and fluttering eyelids work overtime as she slowly gives over to sensuality. As she fills in the gaps of what simply isn’t present in her thankless character arc, a woman who initially seems shrewish and insipid becomes a genuine heroine to root for.

The Aftermath ends with an inevitable discovery of an affair and an emotional reconciliation that may allow some viewers to creak out a few tears, depending on their hormonal levels. But it is the cinematic equivalent of crying after sex, cathartic yet wholly awkward for everyone involved.

The Aftermath opens March 22

Interact with The Globe