Keira Knightley is on a bit of hot streak as an actress, even if some of the projects she has been attached to haven’t quite made their mark. Earlier this year, she shone in Wash Westmoreland’s brilliant Colette, making big splash a few years before in more ‘modern’ fare as Say When and Begin Again, and more recently was the best thing in The Nutcracker And The Four Realms and the painfully awful Collateral Beauty (which, in some ways, has a connection to another of this week’s big releases, Serenity). Whether in period or not, Knightley deserves her dues and while her latest film, romantic drama The Aftermath, fits somewhere in between those mentioned, she once again proves her worth.
Knightley stars as Rachael Morgan, wife to Lewis (Jason Clarke), who travels across Europe to Hamburg post World War II to be reunited with him at a palatial home which he is helping to rebuild. The city is a shell of what it once was, the grey dust of war and bombings circling through the suburbs as a constant reminder of the atrocities that took place mere months before. Decimated beyond all recognition from what once stood, thousands are missing, dead or homeless, the latter of which is a similar fate hanging over Stefan (Alexander Skarsgard) and his daughter until Lewis invites them to remain in the house with him and Rachael, despite them trying to repair their marriage after an immeasurable tragedy.
Director James Kent – who made 2013’s excellent Testament of Youth – returns to slightly familiar territory (albeit a WWII setting this time out) and does a fine job in conveying the horrors of war, both physically and psychologically, ably supported by some suitably stark and grim cinematography from Franz Lustig, but it never elevates itself above solid. In fact, the whole film seems content with such things: the script, from writers Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel (Race) is too lazy in its narrative choices to offer anything truly stirring or indeed romantic, choosing the safer route to passion rather than something a little more surprising. Indeed, we have been here many times before: an overly melodramatic story of love in the time of war, The Aftermath feels repetitive and stifled, struggling to break out from underneath the norm for such an endeavour which, in turn, makes it somewhat of a chore to digest.
Thankfully, its cast saves the day, with a plethora of excellent performances: Knightley delivers yet another soulful, heartfelt turn as the grieving Rachael; whilst Skarsgard continues to make up for The Legend of Tarzan with another solid turn that follows his dynamite performances in The Little Drummer Girl and Big Little Lies. It’s the ever-reliable Jason Clarke, however, who is the film’s standout performer, cementing his place as one of the most underrated actors working today with a stunning turn that is at turns strong and dynamic yet sombre and heartbroken.
While The Aftermath won’t win any plaudits for its originality in terms of story, it’s a perfectly functional drama about loss, reconciliation and the lasting impressions of war on both sides that are saved from the “made-for-TV” moniker by some excellent direction and a slew of great performances that impress throughout.