Ren Zelen gets engaged in watching After the Wedding at Sundance London recently...
Director: Bart Freundlich
Writers: Susanne Bier, Bart Freundlich, Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn, Alex Esola, Vir Pachisia, Greta Quispe
For his latest feature, After the Wedding, director/writer Bart Freundlich has recrafted and gender-swapped a remake of Susanne Bier’s acclaimed 2006 Danish drama of the same title. The two central characters, one an impoverished idealist, the other a millionaire entrepreneur, were initially male, they are now female, and the change brings a new dynamic and a fresh perspective to Bier’s drama.
To play the two leads Freundlich has recruited not only his wife Julianne Moore, but also the luminous Michelle Williams - an acting duo whose combined skill and experience would raise the calibre of any film.
Michelle Williams plays Isabel, an American woman contentedly helping to run an orphanage in India. Unfortunately, she and her Indian co-workers are struggling to keep the orphanage running on meagre funds. Out of the blue, they receive an offer of funding from a potential benefactor, the wealthy American businesswoman Theresa Young (Julianne Moore).
However, one demand that Theresa has in order to proceed with the donation is that a representative of the Indian orphanage must fly to New York and argue their case. She insists that this must be Isabel.
Frustrated by the need to justify a charitable donation, yet under immense pressure to gain adequate funding, Isabel reluctantly agrees. She is doubly unwilling to go because she doesn’t want to leave behind Jai, one of the little orphan boys whom she has taken under her wing and become particularly attached to.
Once in New York, Isabel is slightly taken aback by the expense lavished on her luxurious hotel room, which comes with the personal services of a concierge, a mobile phone and a driver for her exclusive use and all possible amenities and conveniences. After her frugal life in India she cringes at the thought of how the cost of such a hotel room might rather be used to benefit her struggling orphanage.
When Isabel arrives at the glossy New York HQ of Theresa Young’s company and is ushered in to meet her, she is vexed to find her would-be benefactor pleasant, but clearly distracted by having to arrange her daughter’s impending wedding. As the pair have unfinished business and it is already the eve of Theresa’s daughter’s nuptials, Isabel receives an invitation to attend the ceremony.
Although Isabel is already sceptical about Theresa’s magnanimous motives and anxious to return to India, her presence at the wedding proves to be a revelatory experience delivered in two emotional jolts. Firstly, from the look of recognition exchanged by Isabel with Theresa’s husband and the bride’s father, an artist named Oscar (Billy Crudup), we can tell not only that Isabel and Oscar have met before, but that something in their past might explain the unorthodox path her life has taken.
A second shock awaits when during an impromptu wedding toast, the bride, Grace (Abby Quinn), innocently mentions an incident which quietly acts as an emotional bombshell on Isabel. She flees the scene, needing time to be alone and to process an unexpected quandary.
It would be a mistake to divulge much more of the plot from this point, as much of the drama derives from our engagement with the characters as they discover and deal with further revelations as they come along. It is enough to say that the movie becomes more satisfying as we work our way forward.
Director Freundlich encourages his two leading ladies to explore opposing approaches to their roles. Williams’s Isabel is a more closed-off character – conveying her vulnerability and emotional turmoil in her eyes and in small gestures. She deals with her tribulations in private ways - whether meditating alone in her hotel room or, when sorely troubled or frustrated, kicking off her shoes and sprinting down flights of stairs.
Julianne Moore’s Theresa on the other hand, is the antithesis - an extrovert used to playing the big-city PR game and skilled in using her wealth to manipulate situations and achieve a certain subtle control over others.
Billy Crudup as the man caught in between, and Abby Quinn as the daughter, also acquit themselves incredibly well, holding their own alongside these two accomplished actresses.
Ostensibly, this is Isabel’s story, but as the film progresses, it is Theresa’s character that draws us in. We are introduced to a businesswoman with a controlled and powerful façade, but as events unfold, we see that façade crumble under the pressure of a situation over which she has no control.
Given the setup, along with an intimate personal story there is also room for incisive class commentary about these characters and their contrasting positions in society. Like Bier’s film, Freundlich’s adaptation is quiet and thoughtful, aided by Julio Macat’s striking cinematography and Mychael Danna’s mellow score.
After the Wedding offers us a scenario that engages our emotions and our intelligence. Freundlich allows the nuances of these relationships to emerge in the quiet moments between characters, even as he works to heighten the emotional stakes with each new revelation.
All the lead performances are exceptional - Williams again displays her ability to subtly imbue her roles with shades of emotion. But, in what might be perceived as a supporting role, it is nevertheless Julianne Moore’s enigmatic Theresa that we think about after we leave the film - How much did she know about the situation and how it might play out, in fact, did she use her planning and risk-taking expertise in order to engineer the outcome she desired?
After the Wedding offers thoughtful reflection which suggests that, even when we think we have found our meaningful place and purpose, how the course of our lives may yet be changed unexpectedly under the influence of actions in the past, even when those actions were made with the best of intentions.
Review Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2019 All rights reserved.
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Image - Sundance Film Festival