The Aftermath: Clean-Up, by Scott Nye
The Aftermath is the worst kind of not-good movie – one that flirts with legitimacy, thoughtfulness, and maturity, only to pull the rug out from under you and insist the easiest narrative, told with the least consideration to the conflict at hand, is best. It teases you with the notion that it might take an adult approach to its subject matter, only to undermine all that. It does so in a way that crushes its formidable cast that ensures their performances will only be utilized to carry across the necessary plot, with minimal attention to the emotional space they might create on their own. It’s programmatic programming, cinema meant not to occupy your mind but to shuffle you out of the theater with minimal fuss.
It’s especially dispiriting because the actors are clearly investing a great deal. Keira Knightley stars as Rachael, who’s just arrived in Berlin to join her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke, admirably failing to maintain a British accent), a colonel in the British Army who’s been assigned to the city to maintain order and see things get back to normal in the, yes, aftermath of World War II. The military has commandeered a house from a German architect, Stefan (Alexander Skarsgard), for Lewis and Rachael to live in, and it isn’t long before their sympathies get the best of them and they invite Stefan and his daughter to stay. But Rachael is lonely, having lost her son in the war and Lewis being terribly distant emotionally; Stefan, in turn, lost his wife in the war, and it isn’t long until the two fumble their way into each other’s arms.
The sexual component takes the fore far before the emotional, and this is hardly stuffy period piece fadeout bedroom stuff. The sex scenes are quite carnal, opening up a vigorous side of the characters they presumably have to withhold the rest of the time. With that freedom in the bedroom comes a great emotional sense of safety, and Rachael feels she gets from Stefan something she hasn’t had from Lewis in a long time. The anguish this causes all three of them is played exceptionally well – Knightley plays especially well the distinctions between who she has to be with Lewis versus who she can be with Stefan, without resorting to many of the sideways glances or telegraphed discomfort actors usually play. Rachael is very used to being with Stefan, and slipping back into the role of his wife is easy for her.
Conversely, when she really has to face the impossibility of her dilema, especially given the feeling at the time toward Germans, Knightley’s habit of twisting and turning in uncertainty brought to mind similar confrontations in A Dangerous Method, albeit less overt. Stefan maintains that he always hated Hitler and only worked for him because he was made to, but a Nazi’s a Nazi whether they were excited about it or not. The problem is that neither director James Kent nor editor Beverly Mills give the film over to Knightley or anyone else in the cast. They draw from them what they need without having any vision of their own. Scenes are cut short once the narrative is imparted, and we’re shuffled right along.
This also allows far less time for Rachael’s choice to really register. We quickly get caught up in a lot of contrivances to delay her decision and pit her and Lewis further against one another. A late-stage scene at a ball both tries to lavish on the opulence too late and provide a more ostentatious backdrop to an uncomfortable confrontation, neither of which the film needs. By token of professional obligation, I shan’t give away her final decision, but suffice to say the complications introduced at the end would have better suited the material much, much earlier so they could actually be explored. As it is, a decision that once seemed easy is pushed towards the opposite direction with similar ease, without giving us the time to process the ramifications of that. Better to leave the audience pleased and undisturbed. But I’d have settled for engaged.