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‘After the Wedding’ richly rewarding or blatantly manipulating

“After the Wedding” is a deceptive movie about deception. Much like its principal characters, it wants you to think it’s about one thing when it’s really about something else, and then just as you’re adjusting to that something else, another, and then another plot twist demonstrates that that something else also isn’t what the movie is about either, it’s about a different thing, and then another thing after that.

In the end, you’ll feel either richly rewarded or blatantly manipulated — or maybe both.

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Adding yet another layer of complication to the story is the fact that “After the Wedding” is an English-language remake of an award-winning 2006 Danish film starring Mads Mikkelsen, but with the genders of the leads switched. We’ll get to the significance of that in a bit.

But first, the plot. The film opens in an orphanage in India where an American woman named Isabelle, played by Michelle Williams, is helping a slew of orphans meditate, before they head off to hand out food to the impoverished masses in town.

The orphanage is clearly hurting for money, but it finds itself in the running for a significant grant from a rich New York City benefactor named Theresa, played by Julianne Moore. One of the burdensome conditions is that Isabelle has to fly to New York to make the orphanage’s final pitch in person.

When she arrives, she and the film take great notice of the contrast between Theresa’s world of sleek Manhattan offices, million-dollar views, and top-of-the-fashion-line outfits, and her world of struggling non-profit charities. There’s something almost unseemly about Isabelle having to plead her case before the well-meaning benefactress.

At this point, the movie seems poised to be an examination of how the haves and the have-nots of the world perform this rather delicate and demeaning dance of begging and rewarding, of offering charity but with serious strings attached.

And then, after flying halfway around the world to meet her, Isabelle is given very short shrift because Theresa’s a bit distracted.

“You must be Isabelle.
“I’m Theresa. So nice to meet you.”

“You just caught me at a very busy time. My daughter’s getting married this weekend. Come to the wedding. We can get to know each other better.”

Isabelle has no interest in attending the wedding but, feeling as if it’s a command performance, she goes … reluctantly. It’s at this wedding that we and the participants get the first big surprise – Isabelle and Theresa’s husband Oliver, played by Billy Crudup, know each other. It’s clear neither are thrilled to see each other in this awkward encounter with Theresa.

“What are you doing here?” – Oliver
“Hi. Glad you made it.” – Theresa
“I was a little bit late.” – Isabelle
“That’s ok. You’re here now. That’s all that matters. Did you meet my husband?” – Theresa
“Yeah.” – Isabelle
“So Isabelle runs an orphanage in India that I’m thinking of buying.” – Theresa
“Oh.” – Oliver
“So I thought it would be nice if she could come.” – Theresa
“Mom, mom, mom.” – Grace
“This is our daughter, Grace. This is Isabelle.” – Theresa
“Congratulations.” – Isabelle
“Thank you.” – Grace
“It’s a beautiful dress.” – Isabelle

So, suddenly, the movie shifts from being a third-world perspective on first-world problems, to a domestic drama involving long-buried secrets and lies. And that’s not the end of the movie’s shifts in focus.

Each new surprise, and there are a number of them, changes what the movie seems to be about. It would be a disservice to the film to divulge these surprises, and the directions it takes, but by the end, the filmmaker trusts we’ll all have a richer understanding and appreciation of Theresa and Isabelle and Oliver. No one escapes unscathed but neither is anyone condemned. Perhaps naked manipulation works after all.

It’s difficult to remake a film that depends so much on a series of surprise developments. The shock of the new is missing for any audiences familiar with the original. But writer/director Bart Freundlich has calculated that a Danish film more than a dozen years old, even if an Oscar-nominated Danish film, will not be known by most English-speaking audiences.

And to guarantee it won’t just be a straight remake, he has swapped the genders of the main characters. Both the orphanage worker and the rich benefactor are male in the original and hence, the benefactor’s spouse is a woman.

This switch requires a few plot adjustments but for the most part, it doesn’t change the important overall dynamics of the story too much. In some ways it enriches the material; in other ways it diminishes it.

Ultimately, it’s an aesthetic draw. And Freundlich’s approach does give two of our best actresses a couple of showcase roles. Since Freundlich’s wife is Julianne Moore, it’s easy to understand how tempting it would be to make the rich guy a rich woman, especially since Moore indicated she would like to play that role.

For me, Susanne Bier’s 2006 version is the superior film. It’s more robust filmmaking, and the never-ending surprises seem more organic. But I have to admit my preference may have a lot to do with the fact I saw it first, when all the surprises were real surprises to me. I recommend you seek out the Danish original, but if you have an aversion to subtitles or a strong affection for Michelle Williams or Julianne Moore, this 2019 English language version is close enough to make it worth your while. Better yet, see both.

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