There’s a reason that two of the most fundamental concepts in Freudian psychology are named after Eros and Thanatos, the Greek gods of love and death. While Sigmund Freud’s philosophy may seem dated in applied psychotherapy today, his concepts can still help explain why a movie like The Aftermath can feel so sensual despite its circumstances associated with death. Considering Freud’s theory that we are driven by both a need to fulfill sexual desire alongside a desire to destroy ourselves to create new life, speaks to the primal situations of the characters of British director James Kent’s second feature film, yet another story about love and war in his country. While his first cinematic featire, Testament of Youth, found inspiration in following a couple’s journey from pre- to post- World War I England, this film wallows in the immediate aftermath of war.
With The Aftermath set in post-World War II Germany where the British have begun their occupation in Hamburg, death is all around with renewal but a concept. Mourning the loss of her 8-year-old son in a bombing, the conflicted Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) starts to find feelings for the man whose mansion she and her husband British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) have been given to occupy. That German, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), is mourning his own loss during a bombing, that of his wife. Meanwhile, Stephen’s teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) finds herself entangled with Albert (Jannik Schümann), a young man still devoted to Hitler, who is part of an underground resistance using terrorist tactics to fight the British.
Passion and the pit of emptiness that comes with death collide among these people in convincing ways, considering Eros and Thanatos. While Lewis is away, doing his part to denazify Germany, Rachael finds no one to grieve by. She challenges Lewis’ workaholic ways, which he hardly pauses to recognize the loss they share. His lack of mourning becomes a barricade for their loving marriage. It’s no wonder tensions boil over between her and Stephen, turning her from loathing him to desiring him over the remains of her marriage. When they do hook up — and it’s a sexy scene rarely scene in puritanical Hollywood nowadays — it’s plausible and moving in all its lusty quality, from primal sexuality to the hope for something new.
In a film featuring an array of strong performances, transporting period set dressing and costuming and a focused story that keeps the various interconnected story lines flowing at an engaging pace, The Aftermath amounts to transporting drama that works. It may challenge the viewer’s own primal instincts, and the more uptight may not be convinced. But the film works on a genuine, base level that creeps up on you. Some viewers may feel conflicted about who to ally feelings with, but there’s no reason one can’t sympathize with them all, considering the film’s dark circumstances and the sexual tension brewing below it all. It culminates in a satisfying ending that is both hot and heartbreaking.
The Aftermath runs 108 minutes and is rated R. It opens early in Miami-Dade at Landmark at Merrick Park this Thursday, March 28. On Friday, in Miami-Dade County, it arrives at AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place 24, CMX Brickell City Centre, South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach. Broward County the film opens at the Silverspot Cinema 11 at Coconut Creek and Classic Gateway Theatre. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.