This week on Twitter, venerable film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz (editor at large of RogerEbert.com and TV critic at New York magazine and Vulture) posed an important question, to which I had a definitive answer:
Rich people problems are certainly my niche! Especially rich white people problems! And so it goes that After the Wedding fits into a pattern of films I’ve reviewed over the past year, including Sally Potter’s The Party and Bjorn Runge’s The Wife, all of which examine the drama festering in well-to-do families. In The Party, the issue was politics and the future direction of the UK; in The Wife, the issue was creative theft and the weight of a long-term deception upon a marriage. A sort of combination of those ideas is present in But Freundlich’s adaptation of Susanne Bier’s (the woman behind Bird Box) After the Wedding, in which questions about philanthropy, good intentions, and romantic honesty are all under consideration.
Bier’s original film starred Pajiba favorite Mads Mikkelsen, primarily followed two male characters, and was set in India and Denmark; in this version, Freundlich swaps the main characters’ genders and replaces Denmark with New York City. The film begins in India, where the gentle and calm Isabel (Michelle Williams, again dazzling with not very much to go on) helps run an orphanage in Calcutta. She leads the children in meditation, helps them pass out food in slums, and knows that the orphanage is running out of money.
When news comes of a donor potentially interested in making a $2 million gift, Isabel is ecstatic—but the offer comes with conditions, the first being that she must travel to New York City and leave behind the children in her care, in particular a young boy named Jai (Vir Pachisia), who she has raised since he was 1. And when Isabel arrives in New York City, everything about the experience makes her moral compass go haywire: The penthouse the donor has booked for her is gigantic; the restaurants are excessive; and she is given a cellphone and driver for her own use, even though she’ll only be around a few days. It’s clear when Isabel meets the orphanage’s potential benefactor, Theresa (Julianne Moore, appearing in her second foreign-film adaptation this year, after Gloria Bell), that she is resentful of all this extravagance, and just wants to get the money and go.
But Theresa, it is revealed, has other plans. She looks at Isabel a certain way, and she barely glances at the funding proposal Isabel places in front of her. Instead, she insists that Isabel attend her daughter Grace’s (Abby Quinn) wedding that weekend, saying it will be an opportunity for the two women to know each other better. What is Theresa’s endgame? How much is Isabel willing to give of herself to secure the $2 million for the orphanage? And what role does Theresa’s husband, artist Oscar (Billy Crudup), have to play in all this?
On the one hand, it is excellent seeing Williams and Moore, some of the finest actors of their respective generations, going at it. As Isabel, Williams has the opportunity to be more subtle here, wrapping herself in a dupatta shawl like it’s armor, kicking off her shoes at the first chance she gets—as if she is so evolved that every component of Western living is now offensive. She effectively communicates a woman thoroughly uncomfortable in this situation and frightened of how much of herself she could sacrifice to get what she wants, and it’s a world away from her roles in Venom or I Feel Pretty or Fosse/Verdon. It’s just a little bit sanctimonious and self-involved, and Williams does well balancing those more selfish aspects of the character with her good intentions.
That’s not to diminish Moore, though. Her Isabel is a worthy adversary, a woman secure in her power and her position, aware of the doors that her kind of money will open. She’s angrier and more resentful as Theresa than her characters normally are, and the venom she injects in “Why can’t you just be grateful?” is some grade-A rich-people entitlement. Crudup doesn’t have as much to do as either Williams or Moore, but he’s working his recognizable “Don’t be mad, I’m a nice guy” angle here, and his Oscar is an important foil to both women in their arguments about class, wealth, and charity.
Still, the story is what is compelling in After the Wedding, not necessarily the filmmaking. Freundlich does a good job unraveling secrets in his script but relies too much on increasingly wide pans that demonstrate the smallness of these individuals in their surroundings; you’ll get the point once you see Isabel in India and Theresa at her palatial mansion in New York, but the film just keeps on doing it. At least there is a slyness at play that pokes flaws in all the characters’ perceptions of themselves. When the slightly exasperated Preena (Anjula Bedi), who helps run the orphanage, tells the crying Isabel before she leaves, “We were here long before God brought you to us, Isabel,” it’s a reminder that there is a entire world outside of these individuals’ lives, billions of people who are disinterested in their problems. After the Wedding is at its best when it walks that line, of realizing that our domestic concerns can consume our whole lives in ways both belittling and enlightening.
Image sources (in order of posting): Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Pictures Classics