Phil on Film Index

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Review - After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet)

After the Wedding is a textbook example of a filmmaker excelling within her own comfort zone. The two films Susanne Bier has made before this picture - 2002’s Open Hearts and 2004’s Brothers - have been low-key but powerful dramas focusing on the family ties that bind, and in this regard After the Wedding is more of the same. Once again the director utilises an intimate, Dogme-style shooting style which is augmented with occasional aesthetic flourishes, and once more the screenplay has been provided by Bier’s regular collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen. With all of these familiar aspects in place it might seem as if Bier is simply repeating herself, but it’s hard to mind too much when the end result is executed with so much skill.

Like Brothers, After the Wedding is a story in which events in a far-off country have an impact at home. The film opens in India, introducing us to committed aid worker Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) who has spent the past two decades doing his bit for the impoverished local children. But times are hard, with Jacob’s orphanage on the brink of bankruptcy, and when a Danish businessman offers to donate $4 million to the cause it’s an offer Jacob can’t refuse, even if it means travelling back to a country he thought he had left behind for good twenty years previously.

The rich philanthropist is Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), but from his first meeting with Jacob this slightly aloof and self-absorbed character doesn’t seem particularly interested in the orphanage, casting a disinterested eye over the video Jacob has prepared, and he’s understandably distracted by the thought of his daughter’s upcoming nuptials. He invites Jacob to the next day‘s celebrations, promising to discuss the orphanage afterwards, but the wedding itself changes everything. When he turns up at the ceremony Jacob is stunned to see that Jørgen’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a woman with whom he has shared a very intimate history, and whose daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) is just about old enough to have been conceived at that time. That little surprise is merely the start of the revelations.

The fascinating thing about Susanne Bier’s films is the way they always rest on melodramatic incidents and plot contrivances which would have us rolling our eyes in the hands of most filmmakers, but she somehow makes them feel real. Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay is typically schematic - and arguably the weakest of his three collaborations with the director - and yet we still find ourselves wrapped up in the action, completely absorbed as the characters’ lives are turned upside down. Bier handles dramatic revelations as well as any other filmmaker working today, and the potency of these scenes is the key to her pictures’ success. When Jacob discovers the nature of his relationship to Anna it’s a tremendous moment; his eyes meet Helene’s from the back of the hall and the truth passes wordlessly between them.

Such scenes depend not only on the perceptiveness of the direction, but on the quality of the cast, and this is an aspect of Bier’s work which is set at a consistently astonishing level. Mads Mikkelsen - always a pleasure to watch - gives a reliably excellent leading display. It’s a marvellously subtle piece of acting as his self-affirmed outsider gets gradually drawn back into a life he never wanted, gaining new commitments and responsibilities in a breathtakingly short space of time. Lassgård is outstanding too; he initially comes across as rather bullish and dislikeable character, a man manipulating others for his own mysterious ends, but as the truth of his situation is revealed it becomes clear that his actions are motivated by love and fear, and the character’s final scenes in the film are deeply moving.

Bier traditionally gets great performances out of her female cast members, and After the Wedding is no exception. Knudsen excels as the mother whose past comes back to haunt her at what should be her proudest moment, with some dormant feelings being rekindled for this old flame, and Stine Fischer Christensen is extremely affecting in perhaps the film’s most difficult role. Her character, more than any other, is bombarded with a bewildering array of life-changing revelations in the space of just a few days, and she gives an admirable display; but the final surprise to hit Anna is also bad news for the film. The director overplays her hand slightly with this final twist of the emotional knife, and here the film threatened to slip into the kind of soapy melodrama which it had otherwise managed to steer clear of. That’s always the risk with this kind of picture, and Bier just about manages to get away with it here thanks to the strength of the characterisation and performances, but it does cause the picture’s final stages to feel a little overstretched.

There are other minor niggles which seem to be regular occurrences in Bier’s work; her frequent close-ups on aspects of the environment or the dead eyes of a stuffed animal don’t sit well with the rest of the film, and the juxtapositions in her staging are sometimes too obvious, but After the Wedding remains a film to get caught up in. It tackles the often complex relationships between family members - the secrets, the lies and the love - with as much insight and emotional truth as any film you’re likely to see this year, and it ends finally on a note of hope after a wrenching two hours. Susanne Bier might be operating well within her comfort zone, but with films like Open Hearts, Brothers and After the Wedding under her belt it seems churlish to complain.