Giving women in wartime a voice


Director James Kent depicts post-war Germany in The Aftermath through the eyes of a British colonel's wife

Film director James Kent has a bit of a thing for women and war. After making his feature debut with 2014's critically acclaimed Testament Of Youth, with Alicia Vikander as heroic World War I nurse Vera Brittain, he has now sent Keira Knightley into post-war Germany in The Aftermath.

An adaptation of the well-received novel of the same name by Rhidian Brook, The Aftermath tells of a woman who arrives in the ruins of Hamburg during the bitter winter of 1946 to be reunited with her husband (Jason Clarke), a British colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city. The film opens today.

"I love combining the high trauma of war, the heightened emotions, with the story of women who are often not given a voice in wartime," says Kent in London last month.

"Men are in the newsreels. Men are holding the guns. Men are making peace. Men are making all the decisions, but women are given the burden of supporting the men and also dealing with the grief."

This is a story awash with grief. The "aftermath" in the title refers not only to the battered German city, but also the couple's splintering personal life, torn asunder by the death of their son during the German bombing of London.

"This and Testament Of Youth are about women trying to recover from the actions of men, from having suffered enormous loss because of men," Kent adds. "I think that is interesting, not because of the #MeToo movement or anything like that because both films originated before that."

In his childhood, he devoured the Jean Plaidy novels about the wives of Henry VIII, a subject he would later tackle in his thesis during his degree at Oxford University.

"I have always been fascinated by women," he says. "I happen to be gay and I have strong female friends, a strong mother, two sisters and an incredibly strong grandmother. They speak openly and emotionally. I was brought up with women."

Men are holding the guns... but women are given the burden of supporting the men and also dealing with the grief.

DIRECTOR JAMES KENT on the role women play in times of conflict

In his professional life, he introduced Rebecca Ferguson to international audiences with the television series, The White Queen, in 2012, telling the tale of Elizabeth Woodville against the bloody backdrop of England's 15th-century Wars of the Roses.

"I tend to work better with actresses," he says. "Not to say I don't like actors, but I have few male friends and I think actresses are so open to their emotions and we always get on well, so there must be something in that."

Knightley can see why. "James is amazingly emotionally literate," she says. "He has an amazing emotional vocabulary, which for a lot of directors, is rare. They can rarely talk about the insides of the character and therefore what they want from the inside.

"Most directors won't even go there with an actor, but with James, it was almost like talking to another actor as opposed to a director and that helps with finding the truth."

Brook took his family history as the starting point for his story. His grandfather was stationed near Hamburg at the end of World War II and assigned a large family house. Even though he moved in, he allowed the German owners to remain.

This premise forms the narrative framework for The Aftermath, in which Knightley's character and her husband share their house with its previous owners, a German widower (Alexander Skarsgard) and his troubled daughter. In this charged atmosphere, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal as Knightley's character begins an affair with Skarsgard's.

"Although the events depicted in The Aftermath are of my making, this story could not have been written without my grandfather's unique act of kindness," says Brook.

In a further twist of fate, he discovered that the movie's executive producer, film-maker Sir Ridley Scott, also grew up in Hamburg in the aftermath of World War II.

"It completely recalled my childhood," says Scott of the project. "In 1947, I was 10 at the time, my father was important in the army. We lived in Frankfurt, then in Hamburg. My house in Frankfurt, in fact, was the house of a German officer."

His mother was friendly towards the officer's wife, who would come once a month to check that they were looking after the house.

He adds with a chuckle: "Except my mother didn't have an affair with the German housekeeper."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2019, with the headline 'Giving women in wartime a voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe