At one point in Danish director Susanne Bier’s 2006 film After the Wedding, there’s a scene where one of the main characters is facing a terrible revelation, melting into tears and heaves. The same waterworks scene lands right on schedule in the 2019 English-language remake, which swaps the genders of the main characters but doesn’t mess with its melodramatic swings. By the time Julianne Moore cries her eyes out, After the Wedding has already established that all this update really offers is a new set of faces embracing the opportunity to showboat, essentially existing simply as an actor’s showcase. Director Bart Freundlich creates a space for his players — Michelle Williams, his real-life wife, the aforementioned Moore, Billy Crudup and relative newcomer Abby Quinn — to exhibit their skills in scenes seemingly specifically designed to spotlight their craft. They all together do their best with a faithful adaptation that maintains sufficient intrigue for its first half, thanks to a series a gradual revelations that distinguished the original.
The film centers on Isabel, a low-key woman who runs an orphanage in India and is played by a formidable Michelle Williams. But one day Isabel travels to New York to meet with wealthy benefactor Theresa (Moore) so she can potentially fund the orphanage, but while she’s there she’s unexpectedly invited to the wedding of Theresa’s daughter, Grace (Quinn). There, she spots Theresa’s husband, Oscar (Crudup), with whom she shares a complicated history, stretching back some twenty years. And it shouldn’t be a spoiler to disclose that long-buried secrets are inevitably dredged up and consequences rear their ugly heads. Isabel’s shocking discovery takes the drama in a far more personal direction, and anyone hoping to preserve that twist should just stop here — but also know that it’s not the only big twist that the film has in store.
Isabel had a teen romance with Oscar, and while the pair gave their child up for adoption in her infancy, Oscar recovered her after the pair broke up. Grace has been raised to believe her real mother died, and Isabel had no idea that her daughter was raised by her father in the first place. And once all those convoluted pieces of this triangle have been laid out, Freundlich cedes control to Williams as Isabel wrestles with sudden motherhood and whether it comes equipped with immediate responsibilities. But then there’s the question, Why did Theresa bring her out here in the first place? It’s a question that hangs over the film for a bit, but the answer does arrive late in the game, and does a disservice to the idea of burgeoning parenthood that makes some of the initial scenes click. At times, Isabel’s clear disgust for the wealthy surroundings that dominate the family’s world hint at the potential for a dark materialist satire. Yet the movie just pushes that potential aside, refusing to dive deeper into the philosophical conflict; instead, it hovers in mounting tensions between Theresa and Isabel, who resists the older woman’s desire to finance Isabel’s entire existence until she’s trapped by genuine concern for the future of all concerned parties.
As said before this is a remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 film of the same title, and this version of After the Wedding remains very faithful to the plot of the Danish original. The only main change being a gender swap of the main characters so that the film’s focus shifts towards the women, but no reorientation can overwrite a script seemingly hell-bent on diverting attention away from anything remotely interesting. The film insists on dancing around interesting material until it’s time for the heartfelt speeches. But the performances are decently sturdy guides: Williams registers plenty with her tightened features, from contempt for the moneyed security around her to defensive worry that her long-nurtured idealism is crumbling. There’s depth in her compactness. Moore has the shakier course once her third-act secret is revealed, but by that one point Theresa’s hard edges have been chipped away enough that the Oscar Winner’s shadings have become somewhat affecting. Crudup underplays well in what’s mostly a thankless role, while Quinn shines in conveying Grace’s stricken journey.
The actor’s work overtime in After the Wedding hoping to mind some substance out of the vapid script, but unfortunately the potential for high melodrama is ditched for cheap sentimentality. But of course, there is an audience for this sort of unapologetic schmaltz, as this is a remake. Like Moore’s other recent work in another English-language remake, the endearing shot-for-shot remake of the Chilean film Gloria, Freundlich’s project seemingly alters the material with a major update that should theoretically transform After the Wedding into a story of strong-willed women. Instead, it’s an uninspired imitation of a story about strong-willed men, with talented women at once outshining the material and highlighting its limitations all over again.