After the Wedding is one of those worst case scenario remakes. In contrast to the devastating emotional beauty of the 2006 Danish film, the 2019 version takes all the basic beats of the source material and regresses nearly each and every one.
The opening itself is as much an indication of the film’s potential as its hindrances. The camera takes its time panning across the peaceful Asian landscape to reveal its protagonist Isabel, played by Michelle Williams in full cultural appropriation mode, as she meditates in native garb. She takes just as much time to interact with an adorable kid before heading into what’s revealed to be a city in India, where After the Wedding reveals Isabel is here to do far more than find her center as she eats, prays, and loves.
She actually runs an orphanage, and at least After the Wedding blatantly shows a man in her bed to demonstrate she isn’t a sexless saint. No, the evils that are about to arise in her life have their source in the root of all the rest: money. As in before the orphanage can receive the large amount of aid they were promised, their potential benefactors expect Isabel to come to New York City to plead their case.
Shortly after, the movie gives us our first glimpse of Theresa (Julianne Moore), jamming out to the song “The Edge of Glory” as she drives to a large, gorgeous house, which she shares with her loving husband Oscar (Billy Crudup), and adorable 8-year-old twin boys. She’s also the head of a media company she built herself from the ground up, and is right in the midst of planning the wedding of her 20-year-old stepdaughter Grace (Abby Quinn). Perhaps these very different women are about to discover they have much more in common than either would believe?
Oh yes, and there’s a satisfying satirical tone before After the Wedding succumbs to White People Problems at the expense of everyone else. At first, we can not only sense, but deeply empathize with Isabel’s frustration in her meeting with Theresa as she explains how the money she was promised could make a real difference while being constantly interrupted with inquiries about the seafood risotto at the upcoming nuptials. Less amusing is the way Theresa blithely says she needs more time to make any kind of decision, then dismisses Isabel while simultaneously inviting her to the wedding, promising to meet with her shortly after.
When Isabel meets Theresa’s husband Oscar at the ceremony, the subtext becomes so thick it’s a wonder no one has a choking fit. Yet the truth that emerges is far more unusual than what we’d expect, and it’s one Theresa is fully informed of. What is revealed is that Grace is the daughter Isabel believed she and Oscar decided to give up for adoption. Until the wedding, Isabel was unaware Oscar changed his mind and decided to raise Grace himself after he was unable (or unwilling?) to track her down.
To the movie’s credit, Isabel sharply realizes there’s far more to the situation than what Theresa is willing to reveal. If only After the Wedding was as willing to examine itself, it could be a fitting update, or at least a kind of companion to its source material, much like the American remake of the Chilean film Gloria Bell, which also starred Julianne Moore. But After the Wedding seems to think gender-swapping its leads is enough to make it progressive.
Perhaps there might’ve been something to salvage if 2019 didn’t go one gender swap too far and replace the 2006 director and co-writer Susanne Bier with Bart Freundlich, who also wrote here. Other male directors have proven themselves to be very capable of telling women’s stories, but Freundlich isn’t one of them. Isabel doesn’t just become another female character whose motivations are all revealed to revolve around motherhood, she’s continually shamed for giving her daughter up.
With such willful blindness, even actresses as talented as Williams and Moore can’t do much with a film that refuses to acknowledge any hint of complexity, but also the darker truths lurking just underneath a pretty surface it dares not disturb. For all its flaws, the original allowed its characters to be flawed and human while refusing to offer any sort of comfort about the crippling poverty waiting to swallow the orphanage’s young residents whole. So it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that even in the supposedly changing Hollywood of 2019, money doesn’t just buy a solution to any conceivable problem, it also buys the right to completely dominate a story while being released from any kind of social responsibility. If you’re white that is.