While it would be easy to say that Kiera Knightley is having a good year after watching Colette, I’m pretty sure she just doubled down. While it might not be as culturally relevant or sexually expressive as her prior work (despite trying to be the latter) it is equally as important and vital thanks to its heartfelt plea to not just the characters within but the audience as well. The Aftermath might tell a story about a certain moment of time, a snapshot of people’s lives but it has a lasting effect because of how they move forward, get past their baggage and grief and live again.
Telling the story of Rachel (Knightley), a woman who has moved to Hamburg to be with her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke) six months after the end of the war. When they move into a requisitioned house they must contend with its former occupants, architect Stephen (Alexander Skarsgård) and daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). As the four get used to this new arrangement, tempers flare and fresh wounds are reopened but underneath the surface they might just be healing, just a little.
Despite a story lacking in any sense of urgency, it is hard not to see the beauty in it as James Kent’s direction is sublime and his love of the material bursts through thanks to some inspired juxtaposition. Based on the novel of the same name by Rhidian Brooks, The Aftermath is a film all about time and how our memories trap us. Using the destructive shots of a city ripped apart, Kent links all his characters to a past before the war, before the destruction, before the loss, but he also links them to the war itself. To remember the good times, you have to remember what ended them.
He flips the coin however and shows a possibility for the future and it is this idea of hope that adds elegance to a story that could easily feel like a rehash of a played out plot. Kent’s film is all about repair, about moving on from your past or at least being able to look forward towards the possibility of something new and good. Stephen, Rachel and Freda have lost sight of what could be and Lewis is trying not to get dragged back to a time he would more than happily forget. They all cling to the fear and self-doubt the past brings with it and Kent cleverly strips them of this inch by inch without ever pushing them to make choices that seem out of character.
While bogged down in multiple side plots at first, this is a sum of its parts film, something that seems irrelevant becomes pressing and essential in a finale that really highlights how far Rachel and co have come. Knightley leads here but without the addition of Clarke who makes Lewis a loveable yet naive man, a greater fool intent on saving the world but with no notion of how to go about it, the film wouldn’t thrive in the same way. Contrite yet proudly good, Clarke gives an Oscar worthy performance that cuts to the bone. Skarsgård while given a front row seat is left in the back unable to make the same impact.
In the end The Aftermath just wants from us the same thing we want from life, a return to simpler life, a regaining of our innocence after we have been torn apart. Kent uses grief and loss to make his point and due to the stark cinematography it is impossible not to notice how far these people have fallen. One would be forgiven for thinking this is just a war film, just a story about a new normal that these people from the past have to get used to. However this is a political film, a love story and a cry for change all in one.
Saying proudly that good things can bloom from only believing they are possible, from setting aside your prejudices and looking forward, we can all aspire to this kind of thinking. Kent wants his characters not to be better, they are who they are, he wants them to be happier and it’s hard not to imagine when making this epic tale of re-connection that he didn’t want us to be just a little bit more hopeful too.