Bart Freundlich’s family drama After the Wedding doesn’t so much as skip among its four main characters as arc and gyrate and generate emotional torque. It’s intense — you break a sweat just keeping up. It opens with the 40-ish Isabel (Michelle Williams), an American running a financially imperiled orphanage in India who’s summoned to New York by a wealthy magazine publisher, Teresa (Julianne Moore), who’s looking to support worthy causes. Ensconced in an obscenely luxe hotel, the unsmiling Isabel is dismayed when Teresa dithers over the contribution and then invites her to stay the weekend and attend the wedding of her daughter, Grace (Abby Quinn), at the suburban mansion she owns with her artist husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup). Here’s where the long line of twists commences, so you can stop reading if you want — although twist No. 1 is so central to the film that it’s spelled out in the trailer. Right, here goes: Isabel recognizes Oscar. She knew him. Like, really well. They actually had a daughter but together decided to give her up for adoption and go their separate ways, in Isabel’s case to the other side of the world. But … What did Oscar do after Isabel decamped for India? Could he have gone to the adoption agency and … ? Could the blushing bride be … ? Oh, boy. Oh, girl.
Maybe it’s better to know nothing about the wrenching original After the Wedding (2006) by Danish director Susanne Bier — but when has that ever stopped a critic from ruminating on the differences between versions? The changes Freundlich made are fascinating — brave but half-baked. They add a new dimension and a dose of bewilderment. Freundlich keeps nearly every major beat of Bier’s story but gives it a gender swap. Michelle Williams’s role was first played by (wait for it) Mads Mikkelsen, whose character, Jacob, travels from India to Copenhagen to meet with a real-estate magnate Jörgen (Rolf Lassgård) and is stunned to discover that Jörgen is married to his ex, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) — and that Helene had been pregnant when they broke up. The thing is, it’s not that uncommon for a man not to know he has a child by an estranged lover, but it’s damn peculiar for a woman not to know that her ex kept the kid for himself. The change sets up all kinds of black holes and freaky crosscurrents. A dad who finds out after 20 years that he has a grown daughter will get very upset, sure. A mom who finds out will get … I don’t know because I don’t think it has ever happened. But I could be wrong. Call our phone line and tell us your story and we might just put you on the air. (NB: We don’t actually have a phone line.)
Williams doesn’t transform much on the outside — throw things, hit people, the stuff you think a mom would do. Although Isabel is gobsmacked, Williams gives a contained, inward performance that probably won’t get the kudos it deserves. (Williams rarely gets the kudos she deserves.) At a certain point, Isabel seems to have emptied herself of feeling. She has only recently begun to channel her dormant parental impulses into an 8-year-old Indian orphan boy, who anxiously awaits her return, and she has little in the way of social graces. The movie’s premise requires her to stay marooned in New York, staring into space while Oscar tells Teresa the truth, and then Oscar tells Grace the truth, and then Grace has to meet Isabel, and then Isabel has to have it out with Oscar, and then Teresa and Isabel have to meet and decide what to do — if anything — about the orphanage as well as Grace. I’m not even telling you about the other twists, which seem even twistier in this new After the Wedding because the character of Teresa the female publishing dynamo is uncharted territory compared to the typically type A real-estate magnate of the Danish original. Did Isabel and Oscar really belong together, as their Danish forebears did? It’s a little muddy.
But when it comes to drama, muddy waters aren’t necessarily unhealthy ones. Freundlich is married to Moore and has given her the kind of role she does best: a rigid mask over a quivering psyche, with beats for you to register how excruciatingly hard it is to keep that smiling mask in place. She’s all smiles, though they’re half and quarter smiles, always compromised by pesky subtext. How deep does that subtext go? Is Teresa a bystander or a puppet master? The movie builds to a crying scene that I knew was in Moore’s wheelhouse. (In various interviews, Moore has made clear that she can weep on cue.) But I was still astounded by the notes she hit. She’s some kind of actress.
I said the film was a four-hander, but Crudup has an underwritten role and is too honorable to elbow his way into the spotlight. He has to settle for being a bystander and also being vaguely disliked by an audience that can’t quite get past the idea of him raising Grace without telling Isabel. Abby Quinn does a lot of the movie’s heavy lifting and more than holds her own. Her Grace is unnervingly undefended and such a wreck by the end that I was surprised to discover that it’s Quinn singing under the closing credits. I know, those two things (being a wreck in character onscreen and singing under the closing credits) have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but I heard Grace’s voice in that lovely final song.
Freundlich’s After the Wedding hasn’t been well-received, being a few steps further over the implausibility line than even the somewhat implausible Danish original, but tearjerkers rarely have this kind of stuffing. I love how the director gives space to his actors, even the ones he’s not married to. In common with Susanne Bier, he doesn’t fake a harmonious middle ground between the extreme poverty of urban India and the extreme opulence of Westchester County — liberalism and philanthropy can only go so far. None of the characters has a true home. Comedies end with weddings, with order replacing chaos, but After the Wedding is not a comedy and weddings don’t fool anyone.