In 2006, Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier helmed After the Wedding, an emotionally charged drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as the manager of an Indian orphanage who’s summoned back to his homeland in Denmark to meet a rich benefactor who wishes to donate a sizeable sum in order to keep the struggling orphanage afloat. In an unlikely occurrence, Mikkelsen’s character is invited to the wedding of said benefactor’s daughter, only to discover – in a juicy plot twist best reserved for television melodramas – that he is intimately connected to the family in a manner he was unprepared for.
It’s an intriguing plot summary, and it makes sense for the Yanks to want to give it the 2019 update – i.e. gender flipping – so Denmark has been traded for New York, Julianne Moore is now the wealthy benefactor, Michelle Williams is the devoted orphanage manager, and the story is…just as melodramatic, but let’s face it, Moore and Williams can pretty much make anything watchable; as is the case with After the Wedding, their projects are often not as strong as the performances they turn in, but watching the two bounce off each other is a treat in itself.
Director Bart Freundlich (who happens to be married to Moore) teases moments of greatness, setting up unbearable tension between Williams’ out-of-her-element Isabel – her tiny frame seemingly shrinking further by the minute as she steps into the uneasy bustle of New York – and both Moore’s mogul Theresa and her suspicious husband Oscar (Billy Crudup); the duo both at ease in their flippant personalities that can change from warm and confiding to intimidatingly intense in a matter of seconds. And whilst the moment Isabel’s invitation to Theresa’s daughter’s wedding becomes apparent is one ripe with passion and fascination, Freundlich seems unable to maintain the tension, instead adopting a quiet, almost retreat-like approach that undoes any of the fire that was initially lit.
Though After the Wedding is a film heavy on the coincidental plotting device – I haven’t even mentioned Theresa’s own personal turmoil – it’s difficult to dismiss it in its entirety as Williams and Moore are both stellar, elevating their characters beyond the simplistic outlines of their descriptions.
Theresa isn’t always written as a likeable character (the way she berates her assistant is almost comical in its frequent occurrence) but Moore has that inherent ability to make us seek out the good, to look past her flaws and recognise the decisions she’s making are ultimately in the best interest of those she holds dear; there’s a breakdown scene towards the film’s climax that is utterly heartbreaking in how genuine the emotion feels from her. And Williams, who keeps her armour up for the majority of the film, occasionally lets moments of levity flow through, and it’s when she allows us to see the joy of Isabel that we can understand her as a more realised person.
Whilst a film of this ilk should be a stronger product given the commitment of its two leads, After the Wedding is nonetheless a watchable affair thanks to two cinema treasures who surrender their entire beings to the story.