There are several common problems that come with the territory when a challenging film from abroad is remade and given “a Hollywood ending.”
The remake is inevitably neat and pat, some nuance is lost as the remaking filmmaker seems in a rush to a conclusion that seems forgone. And that’s not just something viewers who remember the original film experience.
I reviewed Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding” when it came to the U.S. in 2007. All I clearly remember about it was the Danish star Mads Mikkelsen was the Indian orphanage manager shocked at who he meets at the wedding of a possible benefactor of the orphanage. The genders have been changed for the Bart Freundlich remake.
The memory of the rest of the first film is fuzzy, but watching the remake, reveling in the performances of two great actresses in all their glory, that whole “neat and pat” thing dulls some of the impact. The twists are so big and yet muted that you wonder if they ever shocked, even way back when.
Michelle Williams is Isabel, the devoted manager of an Indian orphange that is forever short of funds. She dotes on the children, one little boy in particular, as they play and learn and even partake in their own charitable work — helping feed the hungry outside their gates.
A chance for “a suitcase full of cash” puts Isabel on a plane to New York to meet with an advertising mogul, Theresa (Julianne Moore). “She is very impressive,” Isabel is warned, as she’s fetched from the four-star hotel suite where she’s been parked.
Indeed she is. Theresa is high-powered, rich, used to getting things done and having schedules bent to meet her needs.
Isabel is rushed into a meeting, and barely has time to reiterate the data on child prostitution, the hundreds of thousands of kids who are malnourished “dying of minor illnesses” when Theresa’s endless interruptions reach a crescendo.
This “very busy time” for her is consumed with the showcase wedding she’s throwing for her daughter Grace. Isabel is taking body blows due to the disconnect between acquisitive, status-grabbing affluence and someone, like her, simply trying to feed the hungry, and the patroness who summoned her for this audience is...distracted.
“My work is all consuming” is followed by a hint of judgement. Theresa has “leaned in” to get where she is — a multi-million dollar “landscape changing” media (ad sales) company, two little boys, an estate in the suburbs. And Isabel? No husband? No children of your own?
No matter. “Very very impressive, the work you’re doing.”
The woman with her hand held out has to tamp down the fury as she is all but blown off, her time discounted by the rich woman who “has it all.”
“Come to the wedding. I’ll get to know you better.”
Williams has several such scenes in “After the Wedding” — knocked back on her heels, in need, forced to swallow her bile at the rudeness, tactlessness and judgementally direct questions Theresa, her sculptor-husband (Billy Crudup) and the daughter getting married (Abby Quinn) fire her way.
The four-time Oscar nominee lets us see each fresh wound, Isabel’s deflated recovery, the tactful “I still need a check from these awful rich people” response to every blow.
Because there are surprises at that wedding — shocking ones. And Isabel, out of place at the lavish meal, the shallow guests talking “paleo” diets and “training for a tri…in Hawaii,” tone deaf and hitting on her, or catty other guests gossiping and questioning the groom’s devotion, physically shrinks before our eyes.
And it’s not just the experience of all this free-flowing cash, that “I think we could get 100 beds for what they’re paying” for her hotel suite.
Isabel knows Oscar (Crudup), the father of the bride. Or knew him in a previous chapter in her life.
Crudup and Williams have a “Who can look more shocked?” face-off, and that’s just for starters. Bring Moore into the mix, perfectly cast as a control freak used to bossing others around, getting her own way and “damn your inconvenience” as she does, and you’ve got the makings of great drama.
Or, well, melodrama. Because the further this picture plows along, the more “Isn’t that convenient,” in terms of plot twists, comes into play.
The scenario takes on complications, too many of them humiliating to poor Isabel, as one and all engage in the pop psychology that gives them their understanding of what has happened, why, and how those involved evolved after it did.
Williams makes us weather these slings and arrows with her. Moore’s ironically-named boss and “mother,” Theresa, even at her most “considerate,” is brittle and demanding and controlling, making one long for a catfight as Isabel gets her back up.
And Crudup makes us grasp the logic of Oscar’s actions, feel just a pang of empathy (he makes a good heel) for his situation.
Quinn’s performance cleverly includes hints of the personalities of every person who had anything to do with her being there, on this day, getting married.
Perhaps its not the movie that will win Williams her Oscar, and perhaps it was wisest to park this solid but flawed melodrama as summer counter-programming, sparing it competition with the true awards contenders of the fall.
It’s still worth seeing for the clinic its dazzling cast puts on, the bite they bring to their showdowns and the heartbreak Williams lets us see — judged, hurt, insulted and tested — time and again, “After the Wedding.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some strong language.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn
Credits: Written and directed by Bart Freundlich, based on the Susanne Bier, Anders Thomas Jensen script for the 2006 Danish film of the same title.
A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:52