What is it with Keira Knightley’s face? I don’t mean that the actress isn’t beautiful in the way that movies and magazine covers know how to sell; of course she is. I’m talking about the manner in which she’s able to convey minute tectonic shifts of emotion through some sort of expressive musculoskeletal wizardry. Is this technique? Intuition? Art or craft? All that matters is that two minutes into “The Aftermath,” you know everything there is to know about the character she’s playing, and she hasn’t said a word.
Knightley greatly outclasses the material here, as does her costar Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood,” “Big Little Lies”). Cast as two people who really, really shouldn’t fall in love, they work up a heat that’s all the headier for the repressed hostility that has led to it. A drama set in 1945 occupied Hamburg, about a romance between a married, stiff-upper-lip Englishwoman and a kind, hot German widower — I told you it was a bad idea — the movie is both ridiculous and enjoyable, especially if you’re given to civilized people in excellent clothes breaking the stemware and rutting on banquet tables. I had more fun with this than is probably wise.
Rachael (Knightley) arrives in the fallen German city several months after V-E Day to be with her husband, Captain Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), who’s trying to bring order to a prostrate city and an angry populace. (One of the very first images is a startling flyover of bombed-out Hamburg.) The couple lost their young son during the London Blitz, and Rachael is brittle and hard on the outside, a blobby mess on the inside, and still angry at Lewis for saying what-ho and going back to work.
The couple is billeted in the palatial mansion of Stephen Lubert (Skarsgard), a rangy architect who was definitely truly very much not a Nazi and who is grieving over his wife, killed by Allied bombs. Stephen has a teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann), angry at the interlopers for relocating her and her father to the attic. She also has eyes for an angry but cute street youth (Jannik Schumann) who definitely truly very much is a Nazi.
Shot in early 2017 and only now getting released, “The Aftermath” casts a spotlight on an unsettled and under-reported time period. If you’re here for a history lesson, though, you’ll be disappointed. Directed by James Kent (“Testament of Youth”) from a novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie is really a throwback to a late 1940s Warner Brothers women’s picture — I do not say this as an insult — to the point that my screening companions and I had many whispered consultations as to who would play the leads in that movie. (The consensus was Joan Crawford or Greer Garson for Rachael, Robert Ryan with a blonde dye job for Stephen, and Ralph Bellamy, the eternal classic-movie third wheel, for the husband. Ann Blyth for Freda.)
Taken on that level — and ignoring the plot absurdities that pile up toward the end — “The Aftermath” is a juicy guilty pleasure, never more so than when the two leads are stalwartly resisting, then caving in to all that sex hanging in the post-Hitler air. There’s a wonderfully overripe scene in which Stephen tries to lure Rachael up to his attic to the gramophone strains of Maria Callas singing an aria from “Samson and Delilah” (recorded in 1961 but never mind, never mind) while Rachael works equally hard to seduce him down the stairs by playing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on his dead wife’s piano. And only because it’s winter in Germany does Skarsgard manage to keep his shirt on when he’s manfully chopping firewood outside a conveniently placed living room window.
The supporting cast doesn’t get to do much, aside from Kate Phillips as a British officer’s wife who takes one look at Stephen and knows exactly what’s up. (She knows she would, too.) But who needs other characters when you can relish the sight of Rachael trying to bend her properly British frame into a Mies van der Rohe chair — the angles clash, it just doesn’t work — or swoon to the scenes in which the couple flees to Stephen’s lodge in the hills for extended sensitive soft-focus grappling? Throughout, Knightley gives this genteel silliness conviction, grace, heart, and nerve. Sarsgaard gives it smolder and sex appeal. And sometimes, dear reader, that’s all a movie needs.
★ ★ ½
Directed by James Kent. Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, based on the novel by Rhidian Brook. Starring Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 108 minutes. R (sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images). In English and German, with subtitles.