Trouble and strife: After the Wedding review

After the Wedding has made some critics queasy — including those of The Guardian and The New York Times — for daring to suggest that being rich does not necessarily mean being unprincipled, and for inviting us to empathise with tycoon-mom Julianne Moore as she faces up to a personal situation that money can’t solve. (These newspapers’ writers have perhaps forgotten how recently their colleagues all but canonised the multibillionaire Steve Jobs.)

It has also managed to annoy the reviewer of Sight & Sound, apparently in the grip of a rampant wokeness which led her to miss every one of the film’s ample signals that Michelle Williams’s character needs the succour of an Indian orphanage considerably more than it needs her, and therefore to accuse After the Wedding of pushing the idea that only bountiful westerners can save the global south.

In reality, the movie’s message on this front is, if anything, “westerners, heal thyselves”. That Williams’s character starts off in India, and encounters Moore’s when the latter wants to discuss making a donation to the orphanage, is technically something that After the Wedding inherited from Susanne Bier’s original 2006 Danish film of the same name. In practice, though, both the orphanage and the donation are little more than pretexts for setting up the two women’s meeting, and exploring the tensions that result when Williams becomes involved with Moore’s family.

The observations about good rich white folk are little more than contrarian asides, and insofar as the Indian angle — which does get a fair bit of screen time — is significant, it is surely there to suggest that Williams is a tad self-delusional. Her almost obsessive attachment to a young Indian boy in her care is not fully reciprocated, and the local woman (played by Anjula Bedi) who runs the orphanage with Williams pointedly observes that they were coping for years before she arrived.

Leaving these relatively unimportant aspects aside (or for that matter, even including them), After the Wedding is a film almost entirely about emotion: events are important only for the reactions and the changes in relationships that they provoke. Having said that, though it has been described as a “weepie”, it really isn’t. It is brimful of melodramatic predicaments — Douglas Sirk would have had a fine old time — but the delivery is quite straightforward, at least until Moore makes her Oscar bid in a Big Acting Scene toward the end.

What it does have in common with more overt melodramas is its huge reliance on performances, sometimes at the expense of structure and dramatic clarity. For example, we are a full 40 minutes into the 110-minute running time before we get the surprise that moves things abruptly from a fairly low gear into a high one, and even then we don’t know quite what it means; but soon the film is over-accelerating, and the piling of revelation upon revelation edges very close to ludicrousness.

It’s a problem, too, that writer-director Bart Freundlich (who is married to Moore, and surely doesn’t “just happen to be” married to her) can’t quite decide who to focus on. Williams, or Moore, or the equally fine Abby Quinn as a daughter?

There are numerous, slightly heavy-handed suggestions of symmetry (Moore’s motherhood of Quinn is in a sense as fake as Williams’s motherhood of the Indian boy; both women have to let go of things; both have to replace, and be replaced; the “selfless” Williams may in fact be the selfish one; and so on), and to be fair they are individually plausible enough within the context of a far-fetched plot.

Yet in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy as a movie about any of the three, with interesting issues (such as Quinn’s relationship with her new husband) hinted at then abandoned as Freundlich hurries off to deal with another of his central trio. Neither — though it might have seemed to on paper — does it draw their three storylines close enough together that we can feel it’s about all of them, collectively.

What saves it, and smooths over much of this awkwardness at least while we’re watching it, is of course the performances. Williams is maybe the most memorable: awkward, suspicious at first, very controlled until emotions suddenly emerge in a kitchen confrontation with Moore’s husband Billy Crudup. Later, she is tentatively smiling in her first one-on-one encounter with Quinn where much of what lies between them is unspoken, perhaps unsure if she is permitted to be happy.

But Moore does sterling work too, even if her achievement is less obvious, lying largely in the way she injects believable normalcy into what could so easily be (and sometimes seems to be scripted as) a stereotypical pushy businesswoman role. Quinn, meanwhile, is the most restrained of the trio, echoing Williams’s performance — her blend of enthusiasm and hesitance, politeness and seriousness — in a way that retrospectively makes narrative sense. And Crudup, although always at risk of being overwhelmed by the women, also shows a convincing and well-controlled range.

Enhancing all this is some outstanding photography and lighting from Julio Macat which contributes to a sense of each scene having a specific emotional tone, even though it is not overtly symbolic. Moore’s mansion is green and gold the day after her daughter’s wedding; the public areas of Williams’s hotel are black and dark brown; and Macat avoids the hugely saturated yellows, reds and oranges in which most film-makers present India, in favour of a much drabber and more realistic palette. (Freundlich steers clear of most of the clichés of subcontinental — and for that matter New York — mise en scène, too.)

One highlight is the fireworks scene that closes the wedding party, powerfully cutting from the exploding pyrotechnics to general shots of the crowd; to individuals within it, some smiling, some not; and then to an overhead view of Moore’s entire estate. We have the sense of the event itself, but also the sense that there are bigger rumblings surrounding and permeating the event, which of course will occupy the rest of the film.

Mychael Danner’s score helps, too, a stately affair dominated by piano and strings, and not over-used; a welcome return to form from the composer of Life of Pi after his embarrassing outing in On the Basis of Sex.

After the Wedding is very far from being a bad film, even if its attempts at poetry are sometimes clunky. (Consider the bird’s nest which Moore rescues, or steals, paralleled by the one that Williams’s young charge watches later on — yes, eggs, motherhood, caring, the whole lot, we get it. Much nicer are the less blatantly emphasised little touches, like the way that the Indian boy is so bad at playing football; Williams, gleaming with adoration, told us earlier about his ambitions to be a professional, and we wonder if she has noticed his incompetence.)

If the movie doesn’t quite work, it is because it tries to deal with so much. Any one of the women’s journeys would be sufficient for a film in itself; trying to cram in three seems a little over-indulgent, and surely even Julianne Moore’s character doesn’t believe that greed is good.

This article was originally published in The View From 8D, a Quora space.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.

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