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story.lead_photo.caption James Kent’s melodramatic The Aftermath is set in chaotic post World War II.

One of mainstream cinema's most unbreachable laws involves the sanctity of beauty finding beauty. It works pretty much like this: The two most gorgeous people in any given film will almost always end up together -- unless they are either blood relatives, or French, in which case, the beautiful woman will invariably end up with a much older, and vastly less attractive man, at least in male-directed films. It might end in glory, or tragedy, but full lips, smoldering eyes, and high cheekbones will always gravitate to each other like a pair of silvery, celestial clouds.

In this way, director James Kent does his leading man, Jason Clarke, serious dirty, matching him onscreen against Keira Knightley (playing his wife) and Alexander Skarsgard (playing a stranger whose house they live in). It also speaks to the film's unfortunate predilection for so demonstrably telegraphing its plot beats that it makes the characters seem idiotic not to know in advance how the whole thing will play out beforehand like the rest of us.

The Aftermath

82 Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Anna Katharina Schimrigk, Jannik Schumann

Director: James Kent

Rating: R, for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

We are just several months past the end of WWII, after the Allies have bombed Germany into near oblivion. As a result of their surrender, the former Nazi state is forced to endure an occupying army to help keep things in line. Clarke plays Colonel Lewis Morgan, a freakishly decent chap, who has been separated from his wife, Rachael (Knightley) during large parts of the war, and very shortly after the bombing death of their young son, before finally reuniting with her at the Hamburg train station. (Notably, after such a long absence, all the joyful reunion the respectful couple allow is a chaste kiss on the cheek.)

Assigned to Hamburg, the Morgans take residence in a beautiful mansion, whose previous owner, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgard), is living there with his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Theimann). Rather than kicking them out, and forcing them to move to a temporary camp, the civilized Colonel Morgan offers them the attic, while he and his wife occupy the (vastly more ornate and cozy) downstairs floors.

Naturally, at first, Rachael smolders at the shyly polite German, representing, as he seems to, the very Nazi forces that killed her son, but the film takes great pains to show us just how virtuous and honorable Herr Lubert is. It turns out that he too is grieving, over the loss of his wife, killed in one of the innumerable bombing raids of the previous year. Despite that loss and the constant pressure all around him, we are to believe he refused to join the Nazi party, renouncing it at every turn, and seems more than resigned to accept his loss of state and stature -- from a successful architect, to a "metal press operator" he says without apparent rancor -- and release the spoils of his mansion to the victorious Brits.

The quality of his character, and his preternatural good looks, gradually earn Rachael's respect, admiration, and eventual lust. It doesn't help matters that her own husband is still far too repressed and British to deal with the anguish of losing his son, a pain and guilt that Rachael has been unable to avoid. To her mind, the understated Colonel (dubbed "Lawrence of Hamburg" by some of his contemporaries) is all too conscientious and careful with the Germans, offering the beaten down citizens respect and sympathy in a way she finds somehow disrespectful to the memory of their child.

To no one's surprise save seemingly their own, Rachael and Stephen ultimately come to terms with their barely concealed desires -- all it takes to put Rachael over the breach is an extended look at Stephen capably chopping wood and one bold, stolen kiss -- and they readily pursue one of those life-changing affairs that seems to crop up often in films about post-war Europe, before everything comes to a head one night, upon the Colonel's return from a brief stint at a distant post, overseeing more death and trauma.

So blunt and obvious is the film, we can instantly glean the narrative purpose of any side characters we meet: The blonde wife (Kate Phillips) of one of the Colonel's fellow officers (Martin Compston) is there solely to provide backstory context to the confused Rachael and her husband, and to display the smug arrogance of the victorious military, contrasting against the Colonel's vastly more progressive ways; Barker (Fionn O'Shea), a young soldier of whom Colonel Morgan takes a fatherly shine, is sacrificed to a stray bullet; a young Nazi (Jack Laskey) Freda meets in hiding provides an element of danger near the film's climax, and so forth. Not a scene, nor a line of dialogue, is wasted in order to take us along in this damningly earnest, deeply dull affair.

Knightley, as always, gives her all to the role -- and to be fair to the actors, in terms of dramatic renderings, there would be much in the film's mawkish script (adapted from a novel by Rhidian Brook) to pique their professional interest -- but it's the kind of barely suppressed passionate character that feels as if we've seen her play a dozen times already.

Skarsgard, for his part, is gorgeous and looming, but his character is particularly undercooked, such that much of his reactions to things serve the plot long before they reflect anything of his personality.

Clarke, who plays the Colonel with such unrelenting even-temperedness you want to smack him in the face, is stuck forever long-suffering (even his confrontation scene with the treacherous Herr Lubert doesn't get much of a stir out of him: He says, simply: "You should just leave, then," before mournfully turning his gaze back out the window), boxed in as the unglamorous straight man standing in the way of the beautiful, self-absorbed couple realizing their true destiny together.

I guess one could make a case for it as a testament to healing in the face of unspeakable tragedy, the drive to get past our pain in order to reconnect with the living world around us, but with its broad strokes and easily identifiable markers, it plays more like the fabricated film playing on the TV in the background of another, likely much better, movie. There solely to draw distinction between its brand of stilted, highbrow melodrama and something set in a more successful semblance of reality.

MovieStyle on 04/05/2019

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