From the wreckage of Allied-bombed Hamburg comes the post-World War II romantic triangle “The Aftermath,” and suddenly the problems of three little people amount to a hill of blah in this handsomely mounted, but hopelessly machine-pressed game of who are sacrificing more to escape the rubble of shattered desire and lingering grief.
Director James Kent’s adaptation of Rhidian Brook’s 2014 novel — about a ghost-like Germany, a broken British marriage, and the healing powers of a passionate thaw — has the unfortunate quality of a hot-blooded soap grafted onto rather than merged with a historical-political drama. The result exhibits little feel for how each genre’s particular needs might interfere with the other’s, or how the film’s trio of capable actors (Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, and Jason Clarke) might be properly utilized.
When one considers the cinematic legacy of post-war Germany sagas alive to the colorful simmer of one-time enemies in close quarters — Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair,” Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” — it makes the dashed potential of “The Aftermath” all the more frustrating.
Early on, there’s promise in the thick, snowy air of polite discomfort coursing through Brook’s scenario. Arriving in Hamburg five months after the Allied victory, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) is eager to be reunited with husband Lewis (Clarke), a conscientious British colonel overseeing a defeated, devastated city’s reconstruction. With the tragic loss of their son during a London bombing raid still a fresh memory, Rachael finds it disconcerting that in requisitioning a grand estate on the banks of the Elbe for them to live in, the charitably-minded Lewis insists its owner-architect, Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård), a war widower, and his aggrieved teenaged daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann), remain as tenants, albeit in the attic.
Rachael does her stiff-upper-lip best to play nice around the gracious if glum Stefan, but she’s suspicious, quick to believe the gossip from a fellow military wife (Kate Phillips, “Peaky Blinders”) that any outline of a removed painting in a German house — like the one prominently featured in the Luberts’ — surely must have held a portrait of Hitler.
But as with conquered cities, dividing a house into foreign zones, no matter how well-intentioned, can turn boundaries into alluring points of trespass. With the intimacy-challenged Lewis routinely called away, almost overeager to play do-gooder for a displaced populace, Rachael is left to find a connection with the sensitive, artistic German upstairs who mourns like her and who looks good chopping wood. (Yes, there’s actually a scene in which she stares at him from a window.) And Stefan, having noticed the chill between his new landlords, is only too happy to address his own loneliness by breaking the growing sexual tension.
Fair enough, as potboilers go. Why, then, does “The Aftermath” always blandly signal its every development, rather than put you in sync with its characters’ percolating feelings? The screenplay, credited to Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (“Race”), and author Brook, is too bogged down with uninspired dialogue (“What is it you want from me?”) and clichéd set-ups (bandaging a wound, really?). Subsequently, the heart can never truly race for either the adultery or a flabby side story involving a guerrilla insurgency among displaced Nazi youth, a plot element that seems to exist only to make up in contrived endangerment what the main love story lacks in sexual peril.
But even outside the gravitas-challenged drama, director Kent — who tackled matters of heart related to the Great War in the better “Testament of Youth” — can’t find a way to showcase the Lubert estate as a visually evocative representation of the characters’ emotional states beyond Sonja Klaus’s (“Taboo”) tasteful old world-meets-modern production design. When you throw in pacing that offers no surprises, the well-appointed cinematography from Franz Lustig (“How I Live Now”) suffers as a result; no shadow-filled indoor scene or weather-driven outdoor shot feels wrong but put together, they don’t add up to a cinematic vision of any meaningful intensity.
The cast is ultimately let down, too, by the lack of directorial verve. Knightley and Skarsgård are a serviceable pair of circle-then-pounce lovers, but their opposites-attracting coupling is hardly cathartic. And in the wake of costume-drama queen Knightley’s revelatory turn shaking up a marriage with wit and spice in last year’s “Colette,” the part of Rachael here is something of a cookie-cutter comedown. Clarke, meanwhile, struggles with a typically thankless role and isn’t done any favors with how his feelings breakthrough is handled in the final act — like the ticking of a box for the remaining emotional strands.
World War II remains such a tempting milieu for filmmakers interested in the classic pleasures of a grandly scaled, era-specific entertainment — whether history-driven (“Dunkirk,” “Darkest Hour”) or spectacle-infused (“Allied,” “Hacksaw Ridge”) — that you wonder if soft entries like “The Aftermath” are merely satisfied to be the B team: atmospheric but not immersive, attractively cast but unmessy, and fine with touching on a moment in time instead of dealing with it. In its aim to primarily push the buttons of romance fans, “The Aftermath” comes off, regrettably, like a period widget.