In 2009, the Irish director Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father”) made “Brothers,” his version of Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s “Brodre” (2004). Now comes the turn of the American director Bart Freundlich to make an American version of Bier’s 2006 film “After the Wedding,” which was a candidate for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture.
It’s not surprising that directors are drawn to make their own versions of Bier’s films. Her pictures are family melodramas that unfold in a social and political context meant to impart greater conceptual and emotional validity than the traditional family melodrama. The plot of “Brodre” takes place against the background of the war in Afghanistan, and “After the Wedding,” in both versions, concerns the West’s obligation to assist children suffering from poverty and other deficiencies in India.
In contrast to Sheridan, whose version almost completely follows the plot of Bier’s film, Freundlich foments a gender upheaval in his version of “After the Wedding,” which intensifies its melodramatic and sentimental essence. Whereas in the film by the female director a man was at the center of the plot and the principal confrontation was between two men, in Freundlich’s picture it’s a woman, and the confrontation is between two women.
I will avoid falling into the spoiler trap of “After the Wedding,” whose plot in both versions consists of a series of secrets that are revealed successively. All I can do, then, is consider the narrative base on which the film rests. The protagonist is Isabel (Michelle Williams), who together with an Indian woman runs an orphanage in the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) area. The institution is undergoing financial meltdown, but then a proposal arrives from Theresa Young (Julianne Moore, Freundlich’s wife since 2003). She is about to sell the company she established, which is worth billions, and wants to donate part of the profits to the orphanage, but only on condition that Isabel come to New York herself to sign the contract. The reasons for this request, of which Isabel is not aware, we will discover later.
Isabel has absolutely no desire to go to New York, especially because she is particularly attached to one of the orphans, for reasons we will also discover later, but she has no choice. In New York Isabel stays at a luxury hotel and, clad in her trademark large shawl, meets Theresa for the first time. Contrary to what Isabel had expected, Theresa hasn’t yet made a final decision – for reasons we will discover later – about whether to make the donation to the orphanage.
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The meeting takes place on the weekend when Theresa and her husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup), are marrying off their daughter, Grace (Abby Quinn), to a nice guy named Frank (Will Chase). Theresa insists that Isabel attend the wedding, also for reasons to be revealed later. When Isabel arrives at the event, the hand of chance, which is perhaps not chance at all, intervenes in the plot. I won’t elaborate on that enigmatic comment.
Reversals and ridicule
I’m not a Susanne Bier fan. Her films tend to gush with melodrama that is at bottom emotional and manipulative. However, her “After the Wedding” was delicate and sophisticated compared to Freundlich’s version, which is directed with a clumsy, crude hand. The gender switch introduced by the writer-director could have added a degree of singularity to the film, given the elements from which the plotline is constructed. There might have been something interesting about the fact that a woman made a movie centering around a fraught relationship between two men, while a man decided to translate that relationship into one between two women.
However, Freundlich does practically nothing meaningful with the switch, other than to intensify the film’s maudlin character. As we have also learned from the current Israeli political situation, what sometimes looks like a turnaround leads nowhere. In Bier’s film we responded to the collection of reversals that steer the narrative; in Freundlich’s version the cumulative collection of reversals almost generates ridicule, and creates the feeling that Freundlich, in contrast to Bier, doesn’t understand the difference between melodrama and soap opera.
Of course, Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore play their roles skillfully: we expect no less from these representatives of two generations of American film actresses, who are very adept at expressing emotion with their facial features. Still, the circumstances in which they find themselves in Freundlich’s film lends their performances this time something of a mechanical aspect. This is the second time we’ve watched this cinematic wedding and followed its aftermath, and if Freundlich’s film conveys a message of any sort, it’s that twice is sometimes once too many.