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Suite Française meets Lady Chatterley in this hammy and preposterous 1940s romantic drama set in the aftermath of the second world war, the “aftermath” alluding also to the consequences of matching tragedies in the lovers’ personal lives.
Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård and Jason Clarke give honest performances, directed confidently enough by James Kent, working from Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s adaptation of the 2013 bestseller by Rhidian Brook. There are some nice enough moments. I liked the German and the Brit agreeing that the “Deutsche See” and the “North Sea” are the same thing and that it is “all the same sea in the end”.
But this kind of wartime star-cross’d swoon is our modern film industry’s equivalent of France’s bygone cinéma de papa: a sclerotic classiness. It is a luxury period piece: cigarettes and antique automobiles, digitally rendered bomb devastation, menfolk variously dashing in uniform and evening dress and the women elegant and sexy, seen in gowns and various states of long-shot déshabillé, and all supposedly exalted by the postwar setting and its historical importance.
The year is 1946 and Colonel Lewis Morgan (Clarke) is part of the British military posting in Hamburg, a decent man but emotionally cold. He is there to administer the postwar settlement, to keep order among the fractious civilian population – traumatised by the devastating British bombing – and to supervise the “denazification” process, the purpose of which is to root out unrepentant Hitlerites. With him, Lewis has brought his beautiful, emotionally brittle wife Rachel (Knightley) who is trying her best to confront the secret pain in their marriage, about which Lewis is in denial.
The Morgans have the right to requisition un-bombed German houses as their living quarters and they are assigned the beautiful home of Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård), sensitive architect, widower and non-party-member and his difficult teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). In theory, Stefan and Freda should be packed off to a camp, but Lewis has the grace to be embarrassed about this, and allows Stefan and Freda to live in the attic, with Stefan permitted to do humble work in the garden. And so, with an awful inevitability, Lewis is away all day neglecting his wife’s emotional needs, and leaving her to brood over the beautiful Steinway in the house. She plays. So did Stefan’s late wife. And these lonely souls are drawn together.
The emotional flashpoints of this secret love are frankly forced and unconvincing. The pair’s first kiss is lacking in the despairing passion that it is supposed to radiate. But, even if it did look plausible, there is something too easy in the way the horrors and guilt of the second world war are slathered in this tragi-romantic syrup. It is reminiscent of Suite Française – though not quite as glib as that other prestigious period production about postwar love and guilt, The Reader.
And other parts of the film seem borrowed, too. Freda meets up with Albert (Jannik Schümann), a menacing young man from the town, and it is eerily like Liesl, the 16-going-on-17-year-old widower’s daughter in The Sound of Music, having her covert assignations with telegram boy Rolf, with his sinister loyalties.
Rachel is in the habit of taking tea with an expat acquaintance in Hamburg, Susan Burnham (Kate Phillips), the wife of a boorish intelligence officer, played by Martin Compston. Mrs Burnham loves to gossip, though with an edge of shrewdness and spite. She is almost a darker version of the chatty, insensitive Dolly Messiter in Brief Encounter (1946).
As a love story, the film is supposed to derive a kind of energy from the devastation itself, a sense that with everything flattened, things can be reimagined. Lives can be begun anew. As Stefan says, it is “Stunde Null, Year Zero, everything can start again”. But there is no real commitment to this idea in the drama. It is more of a holiday romance and the well-intentioned performances lead nowhere.
Source: The Guardian
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