In her Danish films, if not her English-language ones, Susanne Bier has shown a rare ability to frame melodramatic stories in a way that minimizes their sappiness and releases the honest emotion that underlies the often hokey plot turns. When other directors have adapted the originals for English-speaking audiences, however, the result has mostly been pretty dire. Bert Freundlich’s version of her 2006 Oscar-nominated “Efter Brylluppet” unfortunately follows the pattern.
To his credit, at least Freundlich hasn’t simply done a slavish copy. He’s flipped the genders of the leads, and if that choice was made, even partially, to accommodate his wife Julianne Moore, one can understand why he would want to write a juicy part for one of the finest actresses working today. In the end, however, “After the Wedding” represents one of her less effective performances.
In “Efter Brylluppet,” Mads Mikkelson played Jacob Petersen, a Danish man who had become a staffer at an Indian orphanage, and was reluctantly lured back to his homeland by rich businessman Jorgen Hansson (Rolf Lassgaard) with the promise of a large donation that would be made only after a personal meeting. Once there, Jacob was induced to attend the wedding of the man’s stepdaughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) and discovered that Jorgen’s wife Helene (Side Babett Knudsen) was his onetime girlfriend, and that he was most probably Anna’s biological father. The plot proceeded from there, in a fashion that was hardly unpredictable but was played in a fashion that touched the heart rather than squeezing it into teary submission.
In Freundllch’s reworking, Jacob has become American transplant Isabel (Michelle Williams) and Jorgen is New-York based entrepreneur Theresa (Moore). Helene is now Oscar (Billy Crudup), a famous artist-sculptor, and Anna is Grace (Abby Quinn). The basic plot turns are the same, but they feel more manipulative this time around, for several reasons.
Apart from the fact that the Freundlich’s gender switch works less well than Bier’s male-centered original, one is simply that he lacks her sensitivity of touch. While she employed a bare-bones, semi-gritty style, he opts for a lush, opulent look, accentuated by Gracy Yun’s production design, Arjun Bhasin’s costumes, and Julio Macat’s widescreen cinematography, that’s more redolent of Douglas Sirk—or even Ross Hunter. The glossiness italicizes the high-strung tenor rather than suppressing it.
Nor does his approach bring out the best in what is obviously an excellent cast. Williams is really the star here, and works very hard to make Isabel a credible character. But while she makes Isabel’s discomfort with the plush New York environment she finds herself in palpable, she never gets secure grip on the vacillation the woman experiences in trying to balance her desire to get to know her newfound daughter with her continuing attachment to Jai (Vir Pachisia), the shy boy she’s virtually adopted back at the orphanage.
While Williams basically underplays, Moore takes the opposite approach. There are moments in her performance that ring true—especially her interaction with Tre Ryder and Azhy Robertson, who play her sons Theo and Otto. But though there are reasons for her rather frantic ways that won’t be revealed here (as well as an extremely powerful sequence near the close), as a whole her work here lacks her usual subtlety. Crudup (who earlier starred in another Freundlich misfire, “World Traveler”), is meanwhile reduced to a virtual cipher, and Quinn can’t entirely pull off the ill-written Grace, who quickly becomes so obsessed with Isabel that she virtually ignores her new husband, Jonathan (Alex Esola); indeed, you might find yourself feeling more sympathy for him than for the other characters, despite the fact that he’s not the nicest of persons—though you could make a case for Gwen (Susan Blackwell), the assistant Theresa treats like a doormat.
It’s entirely possible that those who haven’t seen Bier’s original will find the film fairly affecting. Those who have, however, will likely consider it a distinct also-ran. The high-toned soap opera, one might add, is just the latest in a list of films from Freundlich that have been disappointing, to say the least.