Based on the original screenplay of Susanne Bier, who wrote and directed the 2006 Danish film of the same name, Bart Freundlich’s updated version of After the Wedding is essentially a gender-flipped replica of its predecessor. The film is set up to pack an emotional punch, but contains so many twists and turns that it’s hard to capture the depth of the characters’ feelings. While After the Wedding’s strong performances are captivating, the film is quite often bereft of fluidity and relies too heavily on contrived drama to keep it afloat.
Isabel (Michelle Williams) runs an orphanage in India and is looking for funding, so she heads to New York City to meet with Theresa (Julianne Moore), a CEO looking to invest before selling her business. Isabel doesn’t understand why she had to fly all the way to NYC when it seemed like Theresa was already willing to chalk up the funds, but the entrepreneur is insistent that Isabel attend her daughter’s wedding and meet her family. Isabel is hit with a blast from the past when she meets Theresa’s husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup) and discovers the true reasons behind Theresa’s hospitality.
After the Wedding’s entire premise is faulty because we’re watching the events unfold through Isabel’s eyes and she’s more or less a passive character throughout. Things happen to her, but there’s never a moment when she truly defends herself or her reasons. It’s Theresa and her plot and family that take precedence. Most of the film often feels like an attack on Isabel’s morals, as if she’s the one at fault while Oscar is the savior for his choices.
The story touches a lot on what it means to be a good mother, but it takes the easy route by giving Theresa and Oscar the moral high ground while Isabel’s choices have no comparative justification. Essentially, the film implies that women should always make the choice to be mothers, whether they’re ready for it or not, and Isabel is demonized for her past decisions while Theresa is praised for hers. It’s condescending and doesn’t allow Isabel the space to justify her actions (though she doesn’t need to) while facing blame at every turn. The film comes to the conclusion that Isabel must somehow pay for the price for not becoming a mother and should now take care of a new family that has unexpectedly become her responsibility.
Additionally, there’s absolutely no reason why Isabel’s orphanage had to be in India. This is especially frustrating and out of place considering that the film centers white women while the Indian kids are used as nothing more than a plot device. If they’re going to be in the film without their perspective being explored, then what is the point? Isabel could’ve easily been working at an orphanage or in foster care in the U.S. and the film’s plot and the secret that pushes it forward would have remained relevant and intact. The orphanage’s poverty is a stark contrast to the seemingly overflowing money Theresa and Oscar have. It makes the film seem all the more ridiculous for establishing that rich people’s problems should come first and foremost while the impoverished Indian kids are used as bait for money (I say bait because their plight proves to be inconsequential to the film and therefore unnecessary to include if Freundlich’s just going to forget about the brown kids in a very white movie).
Isabel obviously sticks out like a sore thumb, navigating a space within the upper echelons of wealth she clearly doesn’t feel comfortable in. Still, her feelings of unease throughout the film are practically ignored while the main focus centers the wealthier and more influential family. Her own erasure and opinions are mishandled and, though there are some very emotional scenes that follow the discovery of why she was really asked to come to NYC, the execution of the fallout doesn’t particularly offer much in the way of depth.
On the surface, After the Wedding plays out like an intriguing exploration of family and what it means to be there for a child. However, the treatment of the woman who initially rejects motherhood is abysmal and retroactively punishes her for her previous choices, then asks her to sacrifice her current life to make up for it. Furthermore, the inclusion of the orphanage in India is unnecessary in a film that clearly values the lives, pain, and decisions of the wealthy over the misfortune of others. The only elements that help to elevate the film from its pervasive emptiness are the outstanding cast performances, but even they don’t make the film worthy of watching.
While After the Wedding’s strong performances are captivating, the film is quite often bereft of fluidity and relies too heavily on contrived drama to keep it afloat.