Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Aftermath – tender performances amongst loss in a devastated post-war Hamburg (in cinemas from 1 March)

In a film about loss, one of the most startling moments in The Aftermath occurs right at the beginning when we are told that more bombs fell in Allied raids on the German city of Hamburg in one night than over London during the whole Second World War.

The scenes of the post-firestorm devastated landscape are accompanied by the compassionate and conciliatory attitude of Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) towards the local people whose city he is rebuilding. This empathy is at odds with his emotional unavailability towards his own wife. Their son was killed in England during the war, and although Rachael (Kiera Knightly) has travelled out to join him, she comes second to the demands of his job and his need to work rather than grieve.

Settling into a grand house commandeered from its previous owner, an architect who is now working in a factory, she struggles to befriend any German, lest of all Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) who are allowed to live up in the attic. Loss is all around.

Knightly works her furrowed brow and scrunched-up nose as her visceral discomfort slowly melts. There’s an incredibly tender scene at the piano between Knightly (mother) and young Thiemann (the homeowner’s daughter) around which the film’s plot pivots. A moment of coitus interruptus sparks a passionate flame that is fanned through to the film’s conclusion. All the while, the depth of sadness her lines say she feels are rarely apparent in her performance.

Clarke captures essence of the distant military man while Skarsgård walks a nicely cryptic line keeping the audience guessing whether his motives are as pure and straightforward as we first imagine. Line of Duty’s Martin Compston plays a thoroughly dislikeable so-called intelligence officer whose characterisation is so abrupt that it jars the flow of scenes.

The ending was not as I imagined. I picked up the breadcrumbs (the cigarette case with the defaced photograph and the depressed soldier) and concocted a completely different – and altogether more tragic – denouement. I like my ending better than the one director James Kent filmed!

The Aftermath’s power is in its unusually honest reminder of the shameful cost of victory and the call to avoid demonising groups of people. Its failing is that the characters deserved a better plot, particularly the conclusion. In cinemas from Friday 1 March.

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