Wartime romances, and post-war ones like “The Aftermath,” put me in mind of Humphrey Bogart’s famous line in “Casablanca,” about how “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
These kind of romances, even “Casablanca,” are predicated on making the audience care about that hill of beans, and the entanglements of three people against a backdrop of death and destruction. So how does “The Aftermath” meet that criteria? Fairly well, thanks largely to the talented actors cast in this love triangle.
This adaptation of Rhidian Brook’s novel (co-written by Brook, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) starts in Hamburg, Germany, five months after the war, as snow and cold is settling over the rubble-strewn streets and displaced Germans huddling for warmth. British Army Col. Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) has just arrived with the assignment of leading the rebuilding effort.
The first order of business is commandeering a house for Morgan to reside, and he picks a spacious mansion on the outskirts of the city. The current occupants are Herr Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), an architect who managed to stay out of Nazi affairs, and his teen daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann), who are about to be relocated to a refugee camp. When Morgan’s wife, Rachael (Keira Knightley), arrives, a deal is struck where the Luberts can continue to live on the house’s third floor.
It’s soon revealed that the Morgans’ marriage is faltering. Intimacy is lacking, particularly when Lewis is popping off to deal with some crisis in the recovery effort. There’s also the matter of their son, killed during the Blitz, and whose death remains a sore point between Lewis and Rachael.
With Rachael alone in the house much of the time, it’s perhaps inevitable that she would fill that loneliness with conversations with Herr Lubert. And it’s perhaps equally inevitable, in movie terms, that romance — or at least hot sex — would also ensue.
Director James Kent (“Testament of Youth”) keeps this romantic potboiler simmering a good long time, building the tension between Lubert and Rachael to unbearable heights. He also finds dramatic energy from a subplot of intrigue, when Freda falls in with a group of pro-Hitler teens plotting sabotage against the Brits, particularly Col. Morgan.
The three leads carry the load, and do so expertly. Skarsgård scores as the smoldering German, seeking an escape from his waitron country and finding it in Rachael’s arms. Clarke has made a habit of playing cuckolded men (“The Great Gatsby” and “Mudbound” stand out), and here he brings a tenderness and humanity to the dirty work of cleaning up a war zone. And Knightley, as the woman in the middle, expresses volumes with every small gesture.
“The Aftermath” ultimately rides on a single question — which man will she pick? — so it’s not breaking new dramatic ground. It plays its game within the lines, and plays it quite well.
Opened March 15 in select cities; opens Friday, March 29, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images. Running time: 108 minutes.