Directed by Bart Freundlich
Starring Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup
In case you ever get to watch Susanne Bier’s Efter Brylluppet, the Oscar-nominated Danish film upon which After the Wedding is based, you’ll notice a remarkable thing: The female characters are given no dimension at all. That’s certainly not the case with the English-language remake, which writer-director Bart Freundlich has not only turned into a showcase for the talents of his lead actresses Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore (who also happens to be his wife), but reinterpreted as a sharper, more interior-focused contemplation of the choices that shake up lives and families.
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With Birdbox as a perplexing outlier, Susanne Bier has always specialized in ambitious dramas revolving around the gargantuan proportions of personal moral dilemmas that are, in turn, dwarfed by the quandaries of the larger world in which they are situated. Her Oscar-winning In a Better World (2010) told the story of a doctor who is neglecting his disintegrating marriage and troubled child while administering to oppressed women in the Sudan. Bier’s powers seemed at their peak with the 2014 thriller A Second Chance, in which social injustice and parental guilt meld seamlessly in the story of a police detective who swaps his dead infant for the baby of drug addicts. But first there was 2006’s quieter After the Wedding, in which Mads Mikkelsen played an activist running an orphanage in India who must return home to Denmark to woo a rich philanthropist, only to discover a life-altering secret.
That same framework is at work in Freundlich’s reinterpretation, but this time the genders have been reversed: Now it is Williams’ Isabel who must fly to New York to secure funds for her floundering orphanage from successful entrepreneur Theresa (Moore), only to find to her chagrin that the would-be patron is distracted by her daughter Grace’s (Abby Quinn) upcoming wedding. Installed in a luxurious boutique hotel and invited to the weekend nuptials, Isabel discovers that Theresa is married to Oscar (Billy Crudup), an artist and ex-lover from her distant past—and that Theresa’s motivations are more complicated and go way deeper than just donating to a good cause.
To talk more about the plot would be spoiling another Bier specialty: melodramatic twists that belie the notion that there are few surprises to be had in domestic dramas. But there is an inherent smartness in Freundlich’s decision to reverse genders: The original conflict in Efter Brylluppet had a remote, hypothetical cast to it; by making his protagonists female, Freundlich has raised the stakes of the conflict, made the implications more immediate. At the same time, he has made the canvas smaller—and somewhat less ambitious—by stripping away the excesses of the surrounding context to let subtext shine through. It’s an approach that is both maddening and illuminating. Often Freundlich will cut away from conversations just as they’re getting more dramatic—as when newlywed Grace hints to Isabel that she is having second thoughts about being married—and yet the director’s lingering attention to silences and facial expressions give you a clear map of where the characters are.
And what a cast to give these characters life. Moore and Williams take opposite approaches: Moore goes big, Williams goes minimalist. As Theresa, Moore summons all the power you would expect a successful businesswoman to have—negotiating deals by phone and pulverizing assistants over a martini—yet adding an extra patina of urgency to her machinations. (There’s a scene early in the film where Moore lustily sings along to Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” in the privacy of her car, and it’s a sequence whose subtext becomes starker once all the twists have been revealed.) But Moore knows when to hold back too, primarily because she’s too smart an actress to know that a climactic outburst must be earned to be devastating.
On the other end of the spectrum you have Williams, going the understated route and being nonetheless gut-wrenching for it. Williams opts to let the stillness of her expressions speak for her, and she turns the act of wearing the same shawl in multiple scenes or opting for the stairs instead of the elevator—complete with a frustrated kicking off of her shoes—into quietly radical testaments to Isabel’s integrity. Williams’ challenge is compounded by the fact that Isabel gets no cathartic explosion at the end the way Williams’ character did in Manchester by the Sea—the script reserves that climactic peak for Moore—and yet the translucence of the actress’ face plugs you into the struggle of a woman whose moral fiber gets tested over and over again.
Often Hollywood will fall in love with a lauded foreign property and then, in the process of reinterpreting it for a domestic audience, proceed to strip away what was so beloved about it. Freundlich does that too, but he knows what to peel away from Bier’s onion-layered movie to get to the heart of the matter. After the Wedding is an assured work from a director whose own quiet, deliberate presence movie lovers had learned to take for granted.
Photographs by Sundance Institute