After the Wedding (Denmark/Sweden, 2006)
Over the past 15 years with Lars von Trier as its poster boy, Danish cinema has gained an international reputation as cynical and severe. The humor is grim, the drama is grimmer, and the production values are ascetic. So After the Wedding is a fresh and welcome change. Although it doesn't stray far from the "back to basics" Dogme 95 filmmaking values promoted by von Trier (handheld cameras, no artificial lighting, etc.), this melodrama is hopeful and optimistic. It shows that human beings are capable of good things and the defining characteristic of a modern man is not moral corruption.
Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) is a Danish emigrant running an orphanage in India. He has only one real attachment there: an eight-year old boy he has cared for since birth. With the orphanage facing closure due to financial pressures, Jacob returns to Denmark seeking funding from multi-millionaire Jorgen (Rolf Lassgård). Since their negotiations will take a few days and Jacob has no other engagements, Jorgen invites him to be a guest at the wedding of his daughter, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen). When he arrives at the church for the ceremony, Jacob discovers that Anna's mother and Jorgen's wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), is an old flame. And that's only the first of several startling revelations that will turn Jacob's short business trip into a life-changing experience.
Although "understated" would not be used to describe After the Wedding, watching it represents compelling viewing and it's fair to argue that significant effort went into developing a plot that moves in one direction before switching trajectories. Seeming coincidences turn out to be less contrived than one initially supposes and there's a nice emotional resonance to some of the film's later, more important scenes. There are times when After the Wedding feels a little like a soap opera, but the lather never becomes too sudsy and the characters retain their humanity and dignity as the storyline pushes them to and fro. It's fascinating to look back on the movie in hindsight and see how beautifully everything fits together.
In the end, this is a movie about family ties and whether they have meaning. We have entered an era in which the so-called "nuclear family" is becoming a rarity, and that fact is highlighted by After the Wedding. The mother/father/daughter dynamic hides layers of secrets and lies. Although Jacob has never been married, he finds himself torn between two families: the orphanage and one in Denmark. Circumstances place him in the eye of a dilemma and he must face a decision that will damn some part of his soul regardless of what he decides. People need him in both India and Denmark and deciding where his loyalties and his future lie represent the core of After the Wedding's drama and the thing that keeps us involved in the drama.
Lead actor Mads Mikkelsen might be familiar even to American viewers not accustomed to watching subtitled films. Mikkelsen resembles a cross between Viggo Mortensen and Daniel Craig, but his primary claim to international fame is for playing the villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Obviously, his role here is much different. This is the kind of performance that requires more in the way of non-verbal cues (the director, Susan Bier, employs frequent close-ups of her actors' eyes) and Mikkelsen is capable of conveying a great deal with a look. He is surrounded by an equally talented cast, although there is one scene in which Rolf Lassgård, as Jorgen, lets his performance become a little too broad. It turns what could have been a quietly emotional scene into one that's overwrought.
Bier is an accomplished Danish filmmaker who has been directing for fifteen years. Some of her previous efforts have achieved international acclaim and distribution. Her 2005 release, Brothers, was a success at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. However, the Oscar nomination for After the Wedding gives it greater prominence than any of the director's previous efforts. This is a fine tale of families and secrets, and its seemingly cold exterior gives way to something unexpectedly warm and soft inside.
After the Wedding (Denmark/Sweden, 2006)
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Rolf Lassgård, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Stine Fischer Christensen, Christian Tafdruip
Screenplay: Susanne Bier, Anders Thomas Jensen
Cinematography: Stine Hein, Ole Kragh-Jacobsen, Morten Søborg, Otto Stenov
Music: Johan Söderqvist
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films