Only a handful of movie sex scenes feel like they were written specifically for women, but the library scene from Atonement is undeniably one of them. The mere mention of it elicits gasps of recognition by women of all ages, followed by a rundown of the distinguishing elements: The green dress! The crackling chemistry! Forbidden love! The tender way James McAvoy asks Keira Knightley why she’s crying!
It’s a moment that’s become so enmeshed in recent cinematic history that any callback to it is instantly recognisable. Which is why I found my eyes popping out of their sockets midway through The Aftermath, when Alexander Skarsgard’s German widower pushes Keira Knightley’s sad British wife onto a dining room table in a way that very obviously evokes that scene.
The two films have much in common. Based on literary source, both are period pieces set in and around World War II, start with “A,” and feature Knightley in a slinky silk evening gown — although Aftermath’s is chartreuse to Atonement’s emerald green. Fans of one will certainly enjoy the other, and indeed the nods to the library scene and Knightley’s iconic dress indicate that director James Kent is counting on the audience to make those connections. But, however thrillingly familiar, such been-there, done-that moments have the downside of reminding us that this is reheated material lacking the emotional impact of the original.
Based on Rhidian Brook’s novel by the same name, the action takes place in post-war Germany, circa 1945. The Allies have won the war, and the country has been parcelled out, with France, the Soviet Union and Britain each occupying certain zones. When Rachael Morgan (Knightley) arrives in Hamburg to join her husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), it’s with a sense of martyrdom. Having lost a son during the London Blitz, she has born the brunt of suffering as a victim of German aggression. And yet, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t so simple. Hamburg is a hollowed out shell after a firestorm set off by Allied bombs destroyed a large part of the city, and its residents are being forced to give up what’s left of their homes to make room for British officers and their families. They’ve suffered too. The question here is: do they deserve it?
Unfortunately, the film isn’t interested in answering that. Instead, we’re introduced to Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard), a soft-spoken and polite widower and former architect who ends up playing host to the Morgans. You can probably predict the rest: Rachael starts off cold and distant (Knightley practically spits out the word “modern” to describe the furniture), but soon falls for Stefan’s cat-and-mouse game; as as Lewis remains obliviously kind and emotionally unavailable, the other two embark on an illicit love affair.
Knightley and Skarsgard’s scenes together are hot and all, and Kent makes lovely use of natural light and white sheets to tease out the sweetness of two lovers forcing one another to reconnect with parts of themselves they’d thought lost.
Still, the film lacks the moral ambiguity that would make such a romance compelling. Stefan’s status as a “good German” who never bought into Hitler’s agenda (and in fact is quite outraged when it’s suggested he might have) is never really in question. Lewis sides with him from the start, and we’re never given any reason to doubt his story. What’s more, Stefan’s daughter Freda’s (Flora Thiemann) subplot romance with a Nazi extremist teenager is given all the complexity of a thimble, neutering any possible nuance. The idea of showcasing German civilians’ suffering during the post-war years, and the resentment of an entire generation whose lives were stolen by conflict, is a refreshing and important one, but it requires depth and subtlety, and The Aftermath doesn’t fully commit to the task.
Knightley gives an assured performance — this kind of stuff is her bread and butter, after all. I could watch her wear lovely clothes and brood in front of a fire for many hours. (Actually, I have.) She deftly conveys the turmoil of a woman who is desperately trying to find her way back from a dark place, but is also reluctant to let go of her last connection to her son. She used to be fun; she used to laugh — is it a betrayal if she does so now?
The romance with Stefan, steamy though it is, is unnecessary baggage, a sexy distraction from a quietly devastating story about a marriage gutted by loss and estrangement. Most of Clarke and Knightley’s scenes together are viscerally uncomfortable, and thus the most interesting to watch. Like post-war Germany itself, the two must grapple how and if they want to move forward from a difficult past and into an uncertain future. It’s the most interesting part of the story, and the least explored.
The Aftermath is in UK cinemas now