“The Aftermath”

“The Aftermath” is a beautifully filmed post World War II drama set in Hamburg. Based on a novel by Rhidian Brook, this film beckons me to read the novel just to see how long it takes to feel any connection to the main character Rachel Morgan. Keira Knightley at first seems like a closed book of shallow needs and prejudiced failings. She has come from London to be with her husband Lewis, who has important work in the British Occupied Zone of Germany as Regional Governor . He is such a good man that actor Jason Clarke may find himself beatified by viewers. The Morgans seemed mismatched in empathy for broken spirits and fallen edifices.

The Elbe flows and we learn more. Both Rachel and Lewis are in the throes of grief. Their eight-year-old son had been killed in his bedroom in a blitz of German bombing. Lewis buries himself in work, never really asking for details in his son’s death. Subconsciously blaming his wife for not better protecting him, Lewis only in retrospect asks if he suffered. Rachel finds herself wondering about Lewis lack of display of feeling, and identifies with the subsuming grief of the architect whose manor house they inhabit. His wife, Claudine, was also killed in a British fire bombing. He is left with a daughter Freda to raise.

A love triangle develops with the architect, Stephen Lubert, played dashingly by Alexander Skarsgard, who in a lovely scene practices his English in front of a mirror, “ Welcome, please come inside. Let me show you the house.” Lewis has graciously allowed the father and daughter to remain on the estate. They move to the attic rather than to one of the many wings. This keeps them out of the refugee camps and into the daily life if the Morgans. Stephen re-centers vases on tables and takes pride in his home’s furnishings. He is lonely, appreciative, and physically attracted to Rachel, who seems to hate all Germans. She initially rejects his proffered hand shake. A challenge, physical need, and shared grief are motives for the lust to follow. There are foreshadowings of subdued desire with a female nude replacing a portrait if Hitler, a stain that can’t be removed was at first covered up with a lace curtain. Melodramatic coupling ensues after an aggressive kiss. Director James Kent keeps the sex scenes smoldering. The pairing of Knightley and Skarsgard sets up a loyalty and betrayal theme that is resolved at the film’s end.

The marriage of Lewis and Rachel is balanced nicely against the affair. They sleep together, talk of their honeymoon. Lewis is heavy with the compliments, and patient with Rachel’s primping and pouty demeanor. She is at first unhappy with her husband’s suggestion that the Lubert stay. “ I was looking forward to it just being us.” Rachel states, though one knows she would need the staff to carry on. Lewis tells her that “ none of this is as it was supposed to be”.  There is chaos out there, and no food. Meanwhile, Rachel complains to the maid that the plants are blocking the light and need to be moved. The staff roll their eyes and talk in metaphors, like “ maggots on bacon”.

The cinematography of Frank Lustig is what you come to see as the superlative in “ The Aftermath”. The blues and golden ochres stay with you, the soft and focused lighting is like poetry. Production designer Sonja Klaus deserves credit, too. My movie partner noticed the German china as a duplicate of her own brought back by her mother in the late forties. Rachel’s seamed stocking are perfectly straight, their son’s maroon sweater frayed just enough, and Rachel’s German so inexact that she calls the maid delicious rather than the meal. Velvet and pearls are Rachel’s regular garb. We wonder why she doesn’t help out in a soup kitchen.

Rachel tells Lewis that he is stifled under all that righteousness, when their bedtime is interrupted, she sarcastically tells him “ to go save Germany”. Privileged selfishness is hard to sanction, yet in the end we understand Rachel better, and it saves the film.

The violence in “ The Aftermath” is fast, yet suspenseful~ a hard combination. We know Lewis is right when he says that it is not war that makes us men. It may be love and forgiveness.

The British opine that the Yanks got the view, the French got the wine, and they got the ruins. The tension sizzles as uprisings flair with hardline Nazis. Occupied zones have been dealt with in other post WWII films, and there are many stories to tell. “ The Aftermath” meshes the pain of war with the psychology of healing. I have trouble seeing Rachel as the best part of Lewis, but that is love for you.

 

 

 

“Chappaquiddick”

“Chappaquiddick” is a good film that humanizes a tragedy and somehow balances privilege and commonality. It is not cavalier with the facts, nor is it overly judgmental. The opening picture of the Kennedy family sets the stage for our understanding of  familiar expectations and personal identity psychology. The tragic drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne is not as illuminated as it is seen as a reminder of the moral underpinnings of the soul.

Actor Jason Clarke plays Senator Edward Kennedy and Kate Mara portrays Mary Jo, the idealistic staffer of his brother Bobby. The “boiler room  girls” are invited to the traditional Martha’s Vineyard  end-of-campaign-cabin party. Drinking plays a big part and a wrong swerve ends with Kennedy and Kopechne submerged  upside-down in Poucha  Pond. Kopechne does not survive. Anyone of voting age in the seventies remembers the scandal. For those younger, the history is as dramatic and tragic as Arthur Miller’s “ Death of a Salesman”. Truths are scrambled and emotions of guilt and identity roil.

While screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan point to privilege in the film as an essential thrust, the conflict becomes more of one of  conscience and identity, the common man’s ride, too.

Clarke does an admirable job in showing Kennedy’s self-deluding calm as he tries to shift reality. Clarke’s hairline and eyes resemble Ted Kennedy’s, but I wish make-up artists would have used prosthetics to widen his jaw, like they did for Gary Oldham in the award-winning “The Darkest Hour”.  Jason Clarke’s Bostonian accent is good and not overdone.

The major dramatic conflict centers on cousin, Joe Gargan ( Ed Helms), who pushes the Senator toward his conscience ;and, the elderly patriarch Joseph Kennedy ( Bruce Dern), who counsels with the gruff and amoral croak,  “alibi”.

It is this Kennedy that loses the most stature in                    “ Chappaquiddick”. Even aged and stroke-damaged, this patriarch’s  callous and high-powered “ the end justifies the means” philosophy does not support the family’s interest, but his own. He looks bad, and we wonder, “ Where is his wife, Rose?”

Ted’s father’s admonition of Ted in being able to choose his own life path was chilling: “ Lead a serious life or a non-serious one. You can choose, but I won’t have much time for you if you choose the latter.” We can understand why Edward Kennedy wished to report that he swam back to the mainland rather than rowed back with his two friends.

The scenes where the Senator seems aghast that having a valid driver’s license is important points to privileged naiveté. The scene where Ted attempts to fault his cohorts     for not reporting the accident are gasp worthy, yet privilege has its down side, too. The pressure of “living in the long shadows” of his brothers is palpable in the Roger Mudd interview scene.

The father-son tension is extreme. The need for his father’s approval intense. Ted’s own small son’s rhetorical question, “ Uncle Jack can do anything, can’t he Dad!” was heart piercing.

Director John Curran builds the film’s tension by letting Clarke indulge in the slow pull and release of a man conflicted. Service to self, family, and God are strong currents that can rip.

I had forgotten that the Apollo landing and Neil Armstrong’s moon walk shared the 1969 headlines with the infamous Edgartown one. Seeing Ted’s buddies, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, stripe to their skivvies, jump into the dark water and try to open the submerged car’s doors is reminiscent of a teenage nightmare. When cousin Joe says, “ Call your mom. Don’t let her find out about another tragedy in the news,” we wonder how old these men are.

Too late to be rescued, Mary Jo is seen mouthing the “ Our Father “ in three inches of trapped air in the Kennedy black 1967 Olds. This flashback is effective and haunting.

The high-powered lawyer team confiring and developing a public relations story is both infuriating and prescient. The logic, loyalty, and humor are cynically wrapped in a three-minute session at Hyannis. Wife Joan attends Mary Jo’s funeral with Ted, while Ted dons an unneeded neck brace. The theatrics aside, the fact is made  that if Mr. and Mrs. Kopechne do not blame Ted, then neither should America.

The final boyhood bedroom scene with father and son is for the stage, and I think a tad over the top. I feel the same about the face slap episode. A father taunting a son with “ you will never be great” is never effective or pretty. Ted’s response that his brothers were great because of who they were, not because of who you are seems like simplistic overkill.

Joe Gargan died at 87 a few months ago, estranged from the Kennedys.  Though the film shows some hints of jealousy when it comes to his cousin Ted, it is Joe Gargan’s moral strength that shines in this film. Helms is great as the guide, who is ultimately disappointed by Ted’s slow acceptance of responsibility. Gargan’s outrage is shown in the lines, “ we all have flaws. Moses had flaws, a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.” Like Willy Loman’s friend and neighbor Charley , he does his best to pay needful attention. Edward  Kennedy was a lion in the Senate, but he is made more human by being seen as an Arthur Miller mesh of Willy, Biff, and Happy: deluded, flawed, and longing to escape.