The Aftermath is a star-studded period drama that prioritises beauty over emotions

Two beautiful actors (Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgard) begin as adversaries and become romantically intertwined in the period drama The Aftermath. The chaos and political change of post-World War II Germany are the setting for a romantic triangle that’s content to merely look the part, writes critic Craig Mathieson.

At the beginning of this period drama, set amidst the ruins and ramifications of occupied Germany just after the merciful end of World War II, Keira Knightley’s character Rachael Morgan, an English military wife long separated from her husband, arrives in Hamburg by train. On the platform she awkwardly greets the uniformed Lewis (Jason Clarke). It’s not clear if they’re married or merely distant siblings, but the scrambled current between them is overwhelmed by the period detail: the engine smoke that must clear for the couple to sight each other, the intricacies of the costumes, and the choreographed bustle of extras.

That sense of misplaced priorities – the warm, technically familiar comfort of a costume piece above the emotional demands of the actual story – is the recurring flaw in The Aftermath. The film keeps nodding to complex ideas and themes, but it never fully engages with them despite a well-qualified headline cast that’s rounded out by Alexander Skarsgard as Stefan Lubert, the German architect whose grand home on the banks of the Elbe River is confiscated by the British army for the use of Rachael and Lewis. What happens between the three rarely feels deeply engaged, instead adhering to what expectation demands from a story where two beautiful actors begin as adversaries and become romantically intertwined.

Grief from the war both divides and unites the elegant house’s downstairs and upstairs pairing – Lewis and Rachael have lost someone, as has the attic-bound Stefan and his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann). There is anger and guilt, on a personal and political level, with the incendiary-bombed city scarred, but the difference between conquest and rebuilding is sidelined by the enmity between the housebound Rachael and Stefan that rather swiftly turns to attraction. The storytelling doesn’t allow a distinction between their mutual devastation and their mutual desire. All the while the cigarette smoke, drawing room glances and Knightley’s elegant wardrobe constrict your attention.

James Kent’s direction is smooth and focused, while German cinematographer Franz Lustig makes beautiful images with natural half-light and the vertiginous planes of Knightley’s face, but too often it’s a film of surfaces. The sex scenes between Rachael and Stefan have a romantic swoon to them, despite the overt psychological scars the pair carry, and there’s no sense of what happens sexually between Rachael and the war-weary Lewis after years apart. Sometimes what should be desperate and deeply risky has a catalogue sheen, as when the surreptitious lovers go on a snowy trek to a snug cabin in the woods that’s an excellent showcase for the chic knitwear they’re dressed in.

The design and decoration of a film should contribute to the narrative, not replace it. This adaptation of Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel refers to the horror of the past, but it also has an emotional stiffness and lack of insight that recalls the lesser films of the same era. There are side-plots about a pro-Hitler resistance and a reference to the Holocaust’s death camps, but they never intrude on the romantic possibilities; Stefan must have been the only able-bodied man under the age of 50 in a flailing Germany who wasn’t pressganged into military service. “Everything can start again,” Stefan promises Rachael, blocking out everything but their nascent love, and The Aftermath is content to believe him, even to its own detriment.