Film: After the Wedding (original title: Efter Brylluppet)
Director: Susanne Bier
Primary Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Rolf Lassgård, Stine Fischer Christensen, Christian Tafdrup
US Release Date: 30 March 2007
I recently read a short book about film. The book (which presents itself as an abridged introduction to film) is decent, but it also has a few flaws. The most glaring of these is the fact that it only mentions one woman director, and she is only named at all when the author is discussing the works of her husband. Partially because of this book, I decided to make more of a conscious effort to watch (and write about) more films directed by women. This decision—along with my great affinity for the work of Mads Mikkelsen—brought me to After the Wedding.
Not that the Academy Awards mean much at all, but since 2006, four Danish films have been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Three of those four films star Mads Mikkelsen. Until very recently, the only one I hadn’t seen was Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding. While this particular film is not as good as The Hunt or A Royal Affair, it does have its high points.
After the Wedding
After the Wedding follows Jacob Peterson (Mikkelsen), a Danish man who lives and works in an orphanage in India. Jacob cares deeply for the children at the orphanage, and he is particular close to one named Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani). Unfortunately for Jacob, orphanages aren’t kept open by sentiment—they also require a considerable amount of cash.
A billionaire named Jorgen (Lassgård) agrees to give the orphanage a large sum of money, but only if Jacob comes to Denmark to meet with him personally. Jacob is reluctant to leave India, both because he believes that there is nothing for him in Denmark and because he doesn’t want to miss Pramod’s birthday. However, he still agrees to meet Jorgen, because the orphanage will surely close if he does not.
Jorgen is married to a woman named Helene (Knudsen), and their daughter Anna (Christensen) is about to get married. After meeting with Jacob in Denmark, Jorgen tells him that he won’t be making a final decision about the donation for a few more days. Jacob is frustrated by this, but agrees to remain in Denmark long enough for Jorgen to make up his mind. Jorgen then invites Jacob to Anna’s wedding the next day. Jacob does not want to attend the wedding, but he does so, because he cannot risk offending Jorgen.
At the wedding, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. Not only does he find himself face to face with someone he never thought he’d see again, but he also learns things about his past that threaten to significantly alter his future. At the same time, Jorgen’s family is also faced with a series of crises. All the while, the future of the orphanage hangs quite precariously in the balance.
After the Wedding offers viewers a genuinely affecting family drama combined with complex and well-written characters that feel incredibly real. The film also features a number of strong, and remarkably natural performances that often work to obscure the fact that there is something just a tad too contrived about Bier’s otherwise engaging story. With After the Wedding, Bier has crafted a film that is both intimate and grand, both soft and overwhelming. Still, even with all of its strengths, After the Wedding is a noticeably flawed work; the films’ failures do not negate its successes, but they do complicate them quite a bit.
After the Wedding is a rare film in which all of its primary characters feel layered, tangible, and realistically complex. Bier takes time developing those characters that her story is most concerned with, and she burdens each of them with enough flaws and baggage for their words and feelings to carry significant emotional weight. Even though certain aspects of After the Wedding’s story do come across as a bit forced, its characters, their words, and their feelings never do.
One reason that After the Wedding’s characters feel so textured and are so impactful is the quality of the film’s performances. For the most part, the lead performances are compelling, and they are responsible for a significant portion of the film’s success. Mikkelsen, Knudsen, Lassgård, and Christensen’s performances are all remarkably believable, and they manage to feel both effortless and emotionally raw at the same time. Mikkelsen and Knudsen are especially good, but the others in the film more than hold their own.
After the Wedding was shot on digital and features a considerable amount of shaky handheld camerawork. More often than not, this fact serves to make the film feel more intimate. The way that the film is shot places viewers right in midst of things, and may even give them the sense that they are watching something like a home movie. The film’s camerawork is also a reflection of its subject matter. One of Bier’s central messages seems to be that life is a messy and haphazard thing and that that’s ok. Given this fact, it’s more than appropriate that, just like life, the lens through which audiences view After the Wedding is unstable and moves in unpredictable ways. Similarly, the film’s frequent use of abrupt editing reinforces just how quickly life can change.
There is something very careful and elegant about the way that After the Wedding tells that portion of its story that is set in Denmark. While this part of the story does make up the large majority of the film, it is rather unfortunate that the scenes set in India are not treated with the same level of respect and attention.
For instance, none of the Indians in the film are allowed to develop in full-fledged characters. Jacob has practically raised Pramod, and he’s presented as someone who is extremely important to him, but he is little more than a plot device. Instead of devoting an adequate amount of time to exploring Jacob’s life and work in India, Bier’s film leaves India behind as quickly as it can. This fact alone might not be so hard to forgive if it weren’t for the fact that After the Wedding also uses the Indian orphans to up the stakes of the film’s drama—which plays out among wealthy people in Denmark and doesn’t really have anything to do with the children Jacob works with at all.
According to this article, Mads Mikkelsen said the following of his time shooting After the Wedding: “It was my first time in India—a total culture shock. We had no chance to comprehend what goes on there . . . We all felt bad about being there. Filming in India felt like we were going to borrow something knowing that we were never going to give it back.” Unfortunately, I was left with a similar feeling after watching the film. After the Wedding begins and ends in India, but it isn’t at all interested in India itself.
On a related note, the film also has a slight tendency to focus on the wrong things—or at least, on those things that aren’t as interesting as some of those it ignores. After the Wedding grapples with questions of family and obligation quite well, but it also misses several opportunities to explore other issues. The film makes it clear that Jacob resents the wealthy and hates the idea of dancing for his (or the orphanage’s) supper, and Jorgen deliberately uses his money to manipulate him; and yet, Bier never adequately explores the ramifications of a system in which rich people in offices have a great deal of power over poor people in the streets. The film also neglects to condemn Jorgen for his actions. On one hand, I understand the sympathy that After the Wedding has for him, especially since what he wants isn’t something terrible. But what if it were?
After the Wedding also suffers from a certain unevenness in its tone, style, and subject matter. This, coupled with the fact it is bit longer than it should have been, leaves the film in an unfortunate position. After the Wedding is simply not as polished as it should have been, and viewers who notice this fact may have a hard time appreciating what it does well.
Get After the Wedding on DVD.
Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. This film isn’t one that I’ve heard many people talk about, so I would love to hear your thoughts on it (it’s currently available on Netflix). After the Wedding may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you should definitely watch it if you’re a fan of Mads Mikkelsen or are interested in the work of Susanne Bier.