Will someone set Keira Knightley free?
There’s no performer more trapped in typecast hell than Knightley, whose once superstar status has faded into mostly taking roles in increasingly similar period dramas. The Knightley role has become as predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west: usually an outspoken woman plagued by misogyny, set “free” by some sort of affair and/or sexual awakening. This isn’t to say she doesn’t bring something to the table each time; she’s a fantastic performer, the kind of locked-in professional that can elicit a thousand different emotions with a single glance. But even the most talented of actors can’t survive playing the same role over and over before it collapses in on itself.
Enter The Aftermath, the first colossal misfire in the Knightley historical fiction canon. Based on Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name, this James Kent-directed tale of romance among the rubble of post-World War II Germany plays out like a lesson in period drama tropes. Plagued by unintentionally hilarious moments of ill-advised plot points, bad acting and pedantic direction, not even Knightley can save this thing from itself.
The plot, the kind you’d find in an airport paperback, is simple enough. Five months after the Allied victory, Rachael (Knightley) moves to the ruins of Hamburg, Germany to be reunited with her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British intelligence officer tasked with overseeing the de-nazification of the city. They are given the home of architect Stephen (Alexander Skarsgård), a German trying to prove that he was not a supporter of the Nazi Party, with the expectation that Stephen and his daughter will move to a nearby relocation camp as soon as possible. However, Lewis takes pity on them and lets them stay in the house’s attic.
Rachael, desperate to reconnect with her husband yet harboring a deep hatred of Germans, is incensed. Her hostilities cool when her and Stephen find common ground in their grief: she lost her son in the Blitz, while Stephen lost his wife in the bombing of Hamburg. Before long, the combination of Lewis’s frequent physical and emotional absence along with Stephen’s sensitivity, icy blue eyes and impressive collection of knit sweaters seduces Rachael into kicking off a full-blown affair.
With a better script, there could be a lot going on here. The immediate post-war period is a complex time that has seen little exposure in film; filtering an affair through the political underpinnings of the era could make for a dark, subversive take on the erotic drama. Unfortunately, the film isn’t interested in anything that interesting, opting instead to buy into its cornier impulses. This is essentially a WWII movie filtered through a Hallmark card: the kind of film where Lewis dealing with the violent protests of hungry German survivors is inter-cut with eye-rolling moments such as Rachael and Stephen, immaculately dressed, having a post-sex snowball fight.
It could maybe get by if Knightley and Skarsgård had any semblance of chemistry, but their romance sparks so quickly that it feels like borderline self-parody. Once their affair begins, the two have almost no consequential lines of dialogue between them, with the film hoping their physical romance is enough to entrance the audience. It doesn’t help that Kent is an obvious, milquetoast director whose idea of building sexual tension lays solely in extended shots of Skarsgård staring at Knightley with pursed lips.
The only actor truly given anything to do is Clarke, who continues to quietly prove himself as a tender, nuanced actor with his tortured, dedicated soldier role. It’s a trope-ridden part, riddled with an expected masculinity complex and plenty of anger to boot, but unlike Skarsgård, and even occasionally Knightley, Clarke never seems to be phoning it in. He brings a real pain and honesty to the performance that serves as a reminder that this could have been a far better film in more thoughtful hands.
Ultimately, The Aftermath stands out as the first truly bad film of the year, an often ridiculous soap opera that seems fully unaware that it is a soap opera. It has all the pieces that should make a Knightley-led period piece work, but the tired notion of her starring in another affair-focused costume drama is just the first of its many problems. If there’s any merit to it at all, it can be found in the so-bad-it’s-good camp of its worst moments; from a Hitler Youth bad boy subplot to an inexplicable moment of hissing, this is an exceedingly beige romance only given entertainment value by how mind-mindbogglingly bad it is when it misses the mark.