Less widely seen (and acclaimed) than it deserved to be, James Kent’s debut feature “Testament of Youth” was one of the great recent love-in-wartime dramas, translating the intimate romance and sprawling human tragedy of Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir with a grace and heft worthy of its David Lean allusions. Four years on, it’s not hard to see why Kent was enlisted for “The Aftermath,” which aims for a similar old-school blend of stiff-upper-lipped heartbreak and grand classical sweep amid the ruins of another world war — albeit from material a bit thinner than Brittain’s. Paring Rhidian Brook’s 2013 bestseller down to a straightforward love triangle between Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke’s troubled English married couple and the dreamy German widower (Alexander Skarsgård) whose house they’ve requisitioned in postwar Hamburg, Kent’s film settles efficiently but less enthrallingly into rainy-afternoon soap territory.
The result is attractive and diverting, as any well-appointed film starring these actors in mouthwatering period finery could hardly fail to be — though for a story about people rebuilding their lives through grievous personal loss and moral torment, it’s hard not to wonder if its vast reserves of enviable knitwear are counting for more than they should. With Keira Knightley dependably anchoring proceedings in clear, quivery “Atonement” mode — even a bold-hued silk evening gown worn for a key confrontation is plainly designed to prompt memories of that emerald number — this Fox Searchlight release, shot in early 2017, will please a select audience starved for grown-up comfort viewing when it hits screens on both sides of the Atlantic in March, having somewhat tellingly skipped both the festival circuit and the awards season corridor.
A work of fiction nonetheless inspired by a chapter of the author’s family history, Brook’s story was in fact commissioned for the screen by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free imprint in 2011, a year before he received a book deal for the film’s ostensible source novel. It’s easy to see why, beyond the broad appeal of a narrative fat with forbidden love, betrayal and honor: As ubiquitous as WW2 dramas continue to be on screen and in print, ones tackling the eerie, politically fraught historical limbo of its immediate aftermath in Germany remain relatively uncommon.
The factual basis of “The Aftermath,” meanwhile, is a striking story hook that could fuel a long-running, conflict-rich TV series. In the British-controlled region of Hamburg, as numerous Limey officers and their families repossess German houses for the duration of the rebuilding effort, Captain Lewis Morgan (Clarke) proposes a fair but unorthodox compromise when his wife Rachael (Knightley) arrives from England to join him: rather than evicting anguished architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann) from their own home, the four will share the roomy premises in a literal upstairs-downstairs arrangement. The Luberts are relegated to the attic, of course: Morgan’s liberal-minded compassion, much mocked by his colder-blooded colleague Burnham (Martin Compston), has its limits.
The families have more in common than their lodgings. Stefan and Freda are still numbed by the loss of their wife and mother, respectively, in the Hamburg bombings; the Morgans’ marriage, meanwhile, has been politely on ice since their only son was killed in a blast in Blighty some years before. Shared grief does little to warm the prickly, vehemently Germanophobic Rachael to her new housemates at first. Yet given the frequent absences of her already semi-estranged husband, and with Stefan’s avowedly anti-Nazi credentials soon confirmed, how long can she resist the charms of a sensitive slab of Skarsgård in her immediate vicinity — least of all one with a habit of chopping firewood outdoors in pristine cable-knit rollnecks? It’s only a matter of time before she does what any of us would do, and costume designer Bojana Nikitovic’s glorious ensembles finally hit the floor.
Writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have also pitched in on Brook’s adaptation, and in the process, the human stakes and dynamics of this romantic tangle have been somewhat streamlined. Gone are a number of secondary characters and tensions (including the Morgans’ second, living, son) to allow more room for Knightley and Skarsgård’s gradual, sensual thawing — culminating in a tactile sex scene, shot in white cascades of afternoon light by DP Franz Lustig, that’s pretty luxuriant hot stuff by the standards of this tightly upholstered genre. The upshot of this intensified focus is that the more war-related plotting that remains feels a little arbitrary: What should be a crucial subplot detailing Freda’s seduction and radicalization by a Nazi guerrilla fighter is haltingly developed and shruggingly resolved.
Any heart-quickening peril is otherwise in short supply in a film more comfortable with slow-simmer character interplay than overt genre mechanics. That’s no problem in itself, though the script doesn’t gift Rachael or Stefan with many layers beneath the dignified pain that each wears on their well-creased sleeve; the quiet intelligence integral to both Knightley and Skarsgård’s screen personae is called upon to cover a lot of ground here. As tends to be the case in the chilliest corner of any love triangle, Clarke has the most to work with, and his portrayal of clammed-up trauma masquerading as very-model-of-a-modern-major-general capability yields the film’s most hard-earned scenes of emotional catharsis. (Even in these, Martin Phipps’s extravagantly weeping, stringtastic score offers take-no-chances backup.)
Kent handles his actors with the care and sympathy they deserve: He’s a romantic and a classicist in a manner that has now fallen rather out of fashion, but makes him ideal for war films that largely play out on the battlefield of a beautiful human face. It’s easy to envision the studio-system version of “The Aftermath” that would have had ’em bawling in the aisles in the 1940s, and it’s to Kent’s great credit that his polished, pretty throwback hews close to this hypothetical tearjerker — but that film probably wasn’t a classic either.