Perhaps fittingly for a film released the day after Halloween, there is something incredibly creepy about After the Wedding; an insidious smugness which sits just out of reach for most of the runtime, evolving into an intellectual itch which will eventually become unbearable.
Mournful, beautiful, Isabel (Michelle Williams) lives and works in a Calcutta orphanage, where she has devoted her life to building better lives for the street children in her care. We know Isabel mourns because she gives excellent sad face. There are dozens of establishing shots of Isabel’s sad face which linger meaningfully on her sad eyes and lack only a large arrow topped by a sad face emoji to absolutely confirm that Isabel is sad.
She is a very selfless, stoic sort of sad though. Showing her pain only through a flattering sparkle of pre-tears in her eyes and a lot of fannying around with her shawl. Isabel has orphaned children depending on her, she does not have any time to weep, there are funds to raise and mouths to feed. So Isabel is also brave. Because she is putting other people before herself even though she is very very sad.
Theresa (Julianne Moore) is not sad. She is super duper successful and busy and self-assured and poised. She is a self-made business tycoon who will soon see her daughter walk down the aisle at the wedding she has meticulously planned and funded. Theresa is completely fine and her disproportionate reaction to a broken birds nest in a fallen tree is not a metaphoric representation of anything at all, thank you.
Thanks to her great success, Theresa is in a position to donate life-altering amounts of money to charities. And to make demands upon the charities seeking her goodwill. Under such auspices, Isabel is summoned to New York to make her case. She is clearly uncomfortable with her return to the US – the shawl positively breakdances – and puzzled by Theresa’s insistence that only Isabel may pitch her. But for the sake of the orphanage, she plays along.
Unfortunately for Isabel, further hoop-jumping is required. Theresa contrives to have her attend her daughter’s wedding that weekend, to extend the apparent audition process. She commands that Isabel reschedule her flight, controls her accommodation and even makes an attempt to dress her. Poor Isabel has to sprint down a staircase sans sandals just to feel like herself again. And the rail of new dresses is nothing in comparison to what she will face at the wedding…
After the Wedding has fine credentials, based on the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name by Susanne Bier, this incarnation was written and directed by Bart Freundlich and flips the sex of the original’s lead giving far more interesting nuance to the shifting relationships between the women onscreen. Billy Crudup anchors the narrative as Theresa’s often wordless sculptor husband – his actions shaped by his wife’s machinations as surely as he finds the form in lumps of rock.
The easy intimacy DP Julio Macat’s gifts us with, in Calcutta – the vibrant sights and sounds of a marketplace, the feel we are in step with locals as they shop and children as they pray and play – fall away when the story moves to New York. Suddenly everything goes a bit Real Housewives of the Hamptons; superficiality, melodrama and social laughter abound. Only the familiar thriller shriek of sawing bow on violin and Isabel’s shawl turning to a shroud tell us that something may be amiss.
The something is Theresa and Oscar’s lovely, misguided, daughter Grace (Abby Quinn) whose wedding is the catalyst for all the upset that follows and whose presence and character are the only authentic things anchoring this tangle. Grace’s complex relationship with Theresa, her belly flop leap of faith into an unsuitable marriage and her battle to forge a bond with Isabel are the highpoints of After the Wedding. The long moments of silence and nervous eye meets between mother and daughter are far more moving than the sob cranking nonsense which later occurs.
It is hard to know what Bart Freundlich hoped to say with After the Wedding but one cannot imagine this photoshoot perfect tonally bipolar oddity was it. After the Wedding is as aesthetically breathtaking and emotionally manipulative as its leading ladies, both of whom are presented with impeccable grooming and lensed like movie icons despite ostensibly being from ‘different worlds’. By the time THE tearjerking moment creaks around we refused to cry from sheer spite.
With a preposterous story, twists that groan with the effort it takes to carry the audience with them and stunning cinematography (which makes it tempting to try a rewatch with the sound turned off), After the Wedding is best described as an amiable mess. Both Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams give good broken woman and there is something valuable being said about the way we define motherhood but it gets crushed beneath the sadness signalling and ultimately Abby Quinn shows them both up as giant hams.
After the Wedding opens across the UK on Friday 1st November