Keira Knightley plays a lonely military wife who falls for a German widower in a tragi-romantic drama set uneasily amid Hamburg’s smouldering ruins

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.

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