Casting can count for so much in a movie. Keira Knightley is perfectly suited to be Rachael, wife of the British Army officer who has been sent to Hamburg to oversee the reconstruction of that city at the end of WWII. Jason Clarke, on the other hand, is at first implausible as her husband Lewis.
With his massive Queenslander head (his jaw juts more than Knightley’s), he looks like he’d be more at home in State of Origin, but by the final scene the pair have pulled it off beautifully. This is an old-fashioned tragi-romance in which the story’s direction is obvious from the moment Rachael meets Stephen (Alexander Skarsgård), the German architect in whose sumptuous house they are staying (it’s the only building, apparently, that was left standing after Hamburg had been razed to the ground).
The attraction that Rachael feels towards Stephen comes against the grain and without warning, for she is hostile to the Germans, whereas Lewis is compassionate and understanding in his attitude to the vanquished. But it turns out that what the movie is dealing with is how war leaves individuals irreparably scarred by personal loss – Rachael and Lewis’s young son was killed during the Blitz, Stephen lost his wife when the Allies bombed his city. But back to casting – as a cold, colourless actor, with a hint of creepiness about him, Skarsgård doesn’t quite convince as the type that Rachael might look to in her anguish, but comfort is often found in unexpected quarters, is it not? Lewis, meanwhile, keeps a lid on his grief while coping with the animosities that still burn among those residents of occupied Hamburg who still yearn for the glory that Hitler promised them.
A sudden act of violence snaps Lewis’s aloofness and ultimately brings to the surface the pain that has been gnawing away at his marriage. Terrific acting, great period creation, and subtly layered emotional threads that are almost undone by a cringeworthy sex scene result in a film of elegance, forgiveness, and warmth.