The “After the Wedding” Remake Gender-Flips the Leads in a Moving New Adaptation
In 2006, the Danish film After the Wedding was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It told the story of two men, Jacob and Jorgen, whose paths cross when the latter invites the former to Copenhagen with a promise to subsidize the Indian orphanage he runs. Jacob is excited to have such a benefactor, but his trip takes a strange turn when Jorgen invites him to the wedding of his daughter Anna. There, Jacob discovers that his former lover Helene, from 20 years ago, is now Jorgen’s wife. Adding further to the drama? Bride Anna is Jacob’s out-of-wedlock child he thought Helene gave up for adoption oh so many years ago.
Now, an American remake is hitting theaters and it gender-flips those two male leads. Jacob and Jorgen have become Isabel and Theresa, and they’re played by actresses Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore. Director Bart Freundlich has kept much of the original narrative intact in this compelling new film he adapted for Moore, his wife since 2003. It’s more melodrama than drama, plagued by a few too many twists, yet it remains a moving story about love, loss, adoption, and now, female empowerment. Plus, it stands as a fascinating adaptation for screenwriters to study and compare to the original acclaimed film.
There was an overt strain of machismo at play in the Danish movie, given that the leads were men, as well as the fact that they were played by the formidably masculine Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgard. Pride, fatherhood, and patriarchy, both literal and figurative, dominated the Nordic production. Here, it’s more of a battle of wills between two “mama bear” types, both fiercely protective of their domains and anyone challenging what constitutes their “family.”
For Theresa, it’s obvious. Her role as the adoptive mother of Grace (Abby Quinn) is challenged by Isabel, the natural one, and it threatens every fiber of her being. Luckily, Theresa heads up a very successful Manhattan company that has made her and her artist husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) very rich. No one can challenge her domain there. Isabel, on the other hand, holds advantages and disadvantages in exactly the opposite way. Indeed, she has the claim to being Anna’s true mother, yet she needs Theresa’s charitable donations to help keep her Indian orphanage in the black.
It’s a very symbolic conundrum, and Freundlich’s adaptation of the original by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen makes the most of it in subtle and overt ways. The more sophisticated symbolism comes in how the two women face off against each other. Their shifting power dynamics from scene to scene, gives all of the conversations real snap, crackle and pop. Isabel is obviously very upset that she’s been lied to all these years, while Theresa is angry at this interloper upending her world. Isabel can’t be too brusque for fear of not only losing any chance at building a late-in-the-game relationship with Grace, but any flare of temperament could squelch the promise of money to help the children back in India.
Where Freundlich overplays the symbolism some is in how he contrasts the two women’s worlds visually. Theresa puts up Isabel at a tony Manhattan hotel and the extravagances there are over-the-top. The fancy marble, dual-action showerheads, and opulent mini-bar couldn’t be more outrageous to the humble Isabel. The smarmy, outdoor wedding in the NYC ‘burbs so smacks of white privilege that the film falters in making Grace likable. And any time Isabel feels wholly out of sorts, she takes her shoes off to feel more at home like she does going barefoot in India. It’s effective imagery, but edges a bit too close to being on-the-nose.
Freundlich does better with the dialogue and his direction of the cast. When Isabel first meets Theresa in her sprawling office, she makes an impassioned speech about how far the corporate money would go to help the children. Theresa listens avidly until her assistant interrupts on behalf of the wedding caterers who wish to substitute shrimp in the risotto due to a shortage of lobster. For a moment Theresa flies off the handle at the menu suggestion while Isabel sits there stymied by it all. It’s a deliciously wicked moment, foreshadowing the gulf between the two women, one only to widen as the story goes on.
In the hands of many actresses, Theresa could have become an easy villain. While she remains the antagonist here, Moore works wonders showing us the vulnerable human behind the tough manager façade. Moore tends to hesitate mid-sentence in her delivery of her lines when she’s barking orders, suggesting that Theresa isn’t a natural hellion. It helps even the playing field between the two sparring women.
Williams is equally good in the more recessive and reactive role. Her Isabel lives modestly after the humbling events of her youth and she still carries the guilt of her mistakes decades ago even before she learns the truth about her daughter. Williams imbues Isabel with intricate layers of pain, suggesting penance within every action. She brightens in flashbacks showing her playing with the Indian children, particularly the adorable eight-year-old Indian boy Jai (Vir Pachisia), but there’s a melancholy to all her gestures and expressions. She’s heartbreaking, as is so much of this compelling story.
There are a number of twists, some you’ll see coming, some you won’t, but the cast plays all of them earnestly and makes After the Wedding feel quite moving when it could have easily gone maudlin. The two women may be opposites in acting style – Moore plays big here, while Williams plays small – but the contrasts work wonders. The two actresses play just as fiercely with each other as Mikkelsen and Lassgard did in the original, but the women eclipse their male counterparts when it comes to showing the more sensitive moments.
The supporting cast is solid, with even the small roles rendered memorably by their players. The cinematography is gorgeous throughout, and the film’s score dutifully helps coax out the tears. Most importantly, two of the industry’s best actresses not only got a chance to play complex, vivid characters in a Hollywood film, but they were cast as the leads. Even if a filmmaker has to gender-flip the roles to make such miracles happen, who wouldn’t applaud that?
Check out the trailer for After The Wedding below:
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