A film like After the Wedding offers so much promise. An English-language remake of the 2007 Academy Award nominee of the same name (that one written and directed by Susanne Bier), this version (written and directed by Bart Freundlich) features two of the best actors of our generation, Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, in a story of secrets and betrayal and generally poor decision making that should be a riveting, nuanced affair that explores human emotion and connection.
Instead, and despite the best efforts of the two women charged with holding up the whole messy affair, this version of the film is boring and misguided at best, convoluted and manipulative at worst. In the original, it’s Mads Mikkelsen who runs an orphanage in India and is called back to Denmark in order to meet with a donor interested in making a massive contribution. What unfolds from there is a taut, complicated drama that reveals characters with deep ties and messy relationships. Bier isn’t so much worried about a Hollywood polish to the proceedings—the original has a grit to it, a sense of place—as she is exploring how many lifetimes can be lived in one, how our past is never that far behind us, and how we determine what’s most important to us.
In this new version, Freundlich keeps the orphanage in India but plays with the overall structure of the film by swapping out the gender roles of the main characters. Williams is Isabel, the teacher, caretaker and steward at an orphanage she very clearly feels a deep attachment to. Saying goodbye to the life she’s lived for two decades and the people who need her the most, even if only for a brief visit to the States and for the greater good, feels like its own sort of betrayal. But she visits the local tailor for a couple simple new dresses, packs a bag and boards a flight.
Thrust into a cold water bath of culture shock, Isabel is put up in a glamorous hotel suite and invited to meet Theresa (Moore), the CEO of a massively successful (and massively pretentious) media company. The office is all open floor plans and glass doors, and Theresa moves from meeting to meeting like a shark who’ll die if she ever stops swimming. The two briefly discuss details of the donation, Isabel anxious to finalize everything and get on the first flight back to India. But Theresa seems to have an interest in stringing things along, insisting on doing some additional due diligence before making things official. Since Isabel will be stuck in town for longer than planned, Theresa invites her out to her family’s country home, where she and husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) are hosting their daughter’s wedding that weekend.
As the title suggests, the true drama between Isabel, Theresa and Oscar arrives following the nuptials; upon arriving late at the country home, Isabel is just sitting down to a ceremony already in progress when she gets a glimpse of Oscar and time seems to freeze. We understand straightaway that Isabel and Oscar have a history, one that the rest of the film will spend exploring in plodding, contrived revelations that only serve to further convince us of each character’s gross narcissism and frustrating emotional immaturity. Without ever earning it, the film packs in multiple life-changing secrets, trying again and again to get us to care about the trials of these privileged, insufferable people.
To be sure, the disclosures are of a nature that would rock the foundation of any family, any marriage, any relationship. But even Moore and Williams can’t work this revised material out of the wreckage it becomes, neither of their characters apparently motivated by anything other than what the script tells them to do next. In an effort to mix things up by switching around the character’s genders, even the main conceit of the film, which (without spoiling anything) revolves around parenthood, is altered in such a way that the weight it carries is far less impactful than the original. Good on the filmmakers for creating a female-driven film; poor form for letting that compromise the story’s overall effectiveness.
Remaking foreign films isn’t inherently bad; so many wonderful films go unseen by American audiences that recreating them in English (and even with slightly changed circumstances) should be worth the effort. Unfortunately, when a translation like this one loses all the subtlety and power of the original, it seems a lose-lose for everyone involved. Skip this sad excuse for a relationship drama and queue up the original instead (it’s on iTunes, ready when you are).
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