Danish director Susanne Bier has developed an uncanny ability to present what are essentially soap operas in a fashion that makes them seem less tearjerkers than serious dramas. It’s a remarkable skill that she employs once again in this tale that in less accomplished hands might have been dismissed as mawkish and contrived, but in hers comes across as surprisingly honest and affecting.
“After the Wedding” begins in India, where dour, long-expatriate Dane Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) runs an orphanage and bonded with a particularly lovable kid, Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani). But because the operation is on shaky financial ground, he’s reluctantly compelled to travel back to his homeland to meet with Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), a wealthy businessman who’s unexpectedly announced that he’s considering making a substantial donation, but only if Jacob comes to confer with him personally. Jacob makes the trip, promising Pramod to be back within the week for the kid’s birthday. But the friendly but volatile mogul, postponing his decision, invites Jacob to his daughter’s wedding the next day. There Jacob is shocked to learn not only that the man’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is an ex-girlfriend of his—indeed, apparently the only woman he ever loved—but that Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), the daughter, is only Jorgen’s stepchild and that he may be her biological father.
The revelations naturally lead to intense confrontations among Jacob, Helene and Anna as they try to work through the resultant emotional minefield. The increasingly loose-cannon Jorgen insists that he wasn’t aware of Jacob’s connection to his wife and stepdaughter when he virtually summoned him to Denmark, but no viewer with any sense will be taken in by that, any more than the other characters are. Nor will the true reason behind Jorgen’s actions—which will not be revealed here—come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with women’s pictures of the 1940s, of which this is, at bottom, a sort of male mirror-image.
But the script, which almost invites bathetic treatment, comes across here as dramatic rather than melodramatic, incisive rather than mawkish. That’s the result of fine acting across the board—especially by the sharp-featured, quietly simmering Mikkelsen, who even carries off his scenes with Mulchandani without descending into drippy sentiment, and the more heart-on-sleeve Lassgard, who has some moments in which he lets loose so ferociously that he seems almost possessed. Knudsen and Christensen don’t have quite the same opportunities to shine, but they provide fine support. This is primarily a four-person chamber piece, but the rest of the cast fill their assignments more than adequately as well.
“After the Wedding” is unlike a Douglas Sirk-style soap opera from the technical perspective, too, eschewing the sort of slick, lush look someone like Ross Hunter used to cultivate in favor of a grittier feel, bolstered by Morten Soborg often excited, close-in cinematography and the sharp editing of Pernille Bech and Morten Hojbjerg. Johan Soderqvist’s atmospheric score also accentuates the mood.
The result is a domestic drama of rare perceptiveness and power. It’s a strong addition to Bier’s two earlier films, “Open Hearts” and “Brothers,” and confirms once more that she possesses the rare ability to take potentially melodramatic material and shape it to transcend its roots.