After the Wedding is one of those worst case scenario remakes. In contrast to the devastating emotional beauty of the 2006 Danish film, the 2019 version takes all the basic beats of the source material and regresses nearly each and every one.
The opening itself is as much an
indication of the film’s potential as its hindrances. The camera
takes its time panning across the peaceful Asian landscape to reveal
its protagonist Isabel, played by Michelle Williams in full cultural
appropriation mode, as she meditates in native garb. She takes just
as much time to interact with an adorable kid before heading into
what’s revealed to be a city in India, where After the Wedding
reveals Isabel is here to do far more than find her center as she
eats, prays, and loves.
She actually runs an orphanage, and at
least After the Wedding blatantly shows a man in her bed to
demonstrate she isn’t a sexless saint. No, the evils that are about
to arise in her life have their source in the root of all the rest:
money. As in before the orphanage can receive the large amount of aid
they were promised, their potential benefactors expect Isabel to come
to New York City to plead their case.
Shortly after, the movie gives us our
first glimpse of Theresa (Julianne Moore), jamming out to the song
“The Edge of Glory” as she drives to a large, gorgeous house,
which she shares with her loving husband Oscar (Billy Crudup), and
adorable 8-year-old twin boys. She’s also the head of a media company
she built herself from the ground up, and is right in the midst of
planning the wedding of her 20-year-old stepdaughter Grace (Abby
Quinn). Perhaps these very different women are about to discover they
have much more in common than either would believe?
Oh yes, and there’s a satisfying
satirical tone before After the Wedding succumbs to White
People Problems at the expense of everyone else. At first, we can not
only sense, but deeply empathize with Isabel’s frustration in her
meeting with Theresa as she explains how the money she was promised
could make a real difference while being constantly interrupted with
inquiries about the seafood risotto at the upcoming nuptials. Less
amusing is the way Theresa blithely says she needs more time to make
any kind of decision, then dismisses Isabel while simultaneously
inviting her to the wedding, promising to meet with her shortly
When Isabel meets Theresa’s husband
Oscar at the ceremony, the subtext becomes so thick it’s a wonder no
one has a choking fit. Yet the truth that emerges is far more unusual
than what we’d expect, and it’s one Theresa is fully informed of.
What is revealed is that Grace is the daughter Isabel believed she
and Oscar decided to give up for adoption. Until the wedding, Isabel
was unaware Oscar changed his mind and decided to raise Grace himself
after he was unable (or unwilling?) to track her down.
To the movie’s credit, Isabel sharply
realizes there’s far more to the situation than what Theresa is
willing to reveal. If only After the Wedding was as willing to
examine itself, it could be a fitting update, or at least a kind of
companion to its source material, much like the American remake of
the Chilean film Gloria Bell, which also starred Julianne
Moore. But After the Wedding seems to think gender-swapping
its leads is enough to make it progressive.
Perhaps there might’ve been something
to salvage if 2019 didn’t go one gender swap too far and replace the
2006 director and co-writer Susanne Bier with Bart Freundlich, who
also wrote here. Other male directors have proven themselves to be
very capable of telling women’s stories, but Freundlich isn’t one of
them. Isabel doesn’t just become another female character whose
motivations are all revealed to revolve around motherhood, she’s
continually shamed for giving her daughter up.
With such willful blindness, even
actresses as talented as Williams and Moore can’t do much with a film
that refuses to acknowledge any hint of complexity, but also the
darker truths lurking just underneath a pretty surface it dares not
disturb. For all its flaws, the original allowed its characters to be
flawed and human while refusing to offer any sort of comfort about
the crippling poverty waiting to swallow the orphanage’s young
residents whole. So it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that even
in the supposedly changing Hollywood of 2019, money doesn’t just buy
a solution to any conceivable problem, it also buys the right to
completely dominate a story while being released from any kind of
social responsibility. If you’re white that is.