The Aftermath had all the bones of a great film.
Top grade actors in Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard and Jason Clarke, a rich source material in the well-received book by Rhidian Brook and a production design that vividly draws on its 1946 setting.
But somewhere in the process, it became muddled.
Instead of a compelling historical drama that captures the moral complexity of its post-war German milieu, its energy is sapped into an uneven love triangle that you have no investment in, even if the actors do engage in some nakedness. Because there’s little chemistry between any of the leads so what was the point?
Rachael Morgan (Knightley) arrives by train on her own in Hamburg, a city destroyed by Allied bombs during World War II.
Her husband Lewis (Clarke) is a captain in the British Army, and he’s been charged with overseeing the reconstruction of the city.
As they’re driving past the hollowed-out buildings, it’s apparent this is a city of skeletons — not just the decaying remains of the structures that once stood but also of a populace that is starving and demoralised.
There are also literal skeletons in the rubble with 25,000 people still unaccounted for years after the bombings.
When you’re the vanquished in war, no matter your personal involvement in the fallen regime, you are dehumanised, even in your own home.
The official British advice to its citizens, like Rachael, is to keep clear of the Germans and don’t fraternise with them — don’t show kindness and definitely don’t show friendship. The relations should remain as cold as the frosty air outside.
Which is why Rachael is so shocked when her husband suggests the German family — architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgard), his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) and their staff — whose stately riverside manor the British have requisitioned, stay on in the house, keeping to their own quarters.
The house functions as a microcosm of what’s happening in Hamburg but also in Germany as a whole. How do two opposing sides — who have both lost dearly — reconcile this new reality? How do you move on?
Rachael can’t emotionally get past the previous four years, while the pragmatic and thoughtful Lewis is focused on “moving on”. A similar dynamic exists between Stefan and Freda, with the young teenage girl still grieving for her mother and resentful of the interlopers in her home.
Director James Kent tries to tap into the complications of that post-war era by depicting the greys on both sides. There are British operatives who are merciless and unfeeling on one side, and there are Nazis still trying to avenge their dead Fuhrer on the other.
Then there’s the question of whether good intentions — in this case, the Brits’ — are actually helpful.
While the first half of The Aftermath seems interested in exploring these thematically rich concepts, it’s illusory.
Rather than serving as the foundation of the film and the relationships between its characters, it’s only present on the surface as a shallow context for attractive actors to get their kit off.
By the time The Aftermath throws its full focus behind the love triangle between Rachael, Stefan and Lewis, it’s abandoned all pretence that it cares about what’s happening outside the bedroom. Then it’s just going through the motions of betrayal, shocks and regret.
It’s a shame The Aftermath couldn’t marry the more engaging story of post-war reconciliation with the generic love story at its core. It could’ve been a much better movie if it had.