‘After the Wedding’ Review: Michelle Williams Shines in Middling Remake

Despite vivid performances by Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, this remake of Susanne Bier's 2006 melodrama hits the same sappy notes.
after the wedding
"After the Wedding"

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics releases the film on Friday, August 9.

There’s a scene in Danish director Susanne Bier’s 2006 “After the Wedding” where one of the main characters, facing a terrible revelation, melts into tears and heaves an ocean of sobs. The same waterworks land 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 its biggest update is a new set of faces embracing the opportunity to showboat.

They do their best with a faithful adaptation that maintains sufficient intrigue for its first half, thanks to a series of gradual revelations that distinguished the original. Bart Freundlich gives wife and frequent collaborator Moore plenty of room to dig in, and she’s matched by a formidable Michelle Williams, who tackles a role originated by Mads Mikkelsen. As Isabel, a low-key woman who runs an orphanage in India, Williams spends much of the movie mystified, angry, and repelled by affluent entrepreneur Theresa (Moore), while Billy Crudup splits the difference between them with a measured turn as Moore’s husband, Oscar. The actors work overtime to mine substance from an overwrought scenario.

Still, “After the Wedding” amounts to easy viewing, strung together with a smooth visual style and the script’s workmanlike pace. Having established Isabel’s tranquil existence at the Indian orphanage, the movie establishes its first big twist when she receives a random call from Theresa, a New York-based media mogul who demands Isabel visit her to discuss a multimillion-dollar investment in the orphanage’s future. The mystery of that abrupt offer leads Isabel to confront her past in most unexpected fashion (unless you’re seen the original).

While reticent to leave the child she has nurtured from a young age, Isabel begrudgingly makes the trip, and finds herself in an unpredictable situation once she makes it out west: The fast-talking Theresa resists her prior commitment to make a donation until Isabel sticks around for the weekend to attend the marriage of the would-be patron’s daughter, Grace (Abby Quinn). There, Isabel makes a shocking discovery that takes the drama in a far more personal direction, and anyone hoping to preserve that revelation should stop here — but know that it’s not the only big twist that this schematic emotional rollercoaster 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. Once all the 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. Plus: Why did Theresa bring her out here in the first place?

The answer to that question arrives 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 disgust for the wealthy surroundings that dominate the family’s world hint at the potential for a dark materialist satire, especially once she confronts Oscar about it. “There are people with money and principles,” she shoots back at him. If only the movie dug more into this 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. There are flashes of subtle resentment to Williams’ performance that register as some of her best work in ages, so it’s unfortunate that the movie’s calculated assemblage of sentimental beats dominate the show.

Of course, there’s an audience for this sort of unapologetic schmaltz, as Bier already proved; viewed on its own terms, the remake does competent lip-service to the original. Like Moore’s recent work in another English-language remake, the endearing shot-for-shot remake of Chilean sensation “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 a slavish imitation of a story about strong-willed men, with talented women at once outshining the material and highlighting its limitations all over again.

Grade: C

“After the Wedding” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

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