After the Wedding is the kind of movie that evokes discussion between viewers. One of the main questions put before us, is whether anyone has the right to use their power to control other people’s lives, manipulating circumstances in order to achieve a desired outcome, even with the best of intentions.
It comes to us from Denmark, but begins in India, where Jacob Petersen ( Mads Mikkelsen), an idealistic Danish transplant in his early forties, spends his every waking hour trying to make life a little easier for the fifty-five children in his care. As the manager of a small orphanage, he is both teacher and father figure, taking pains to see that the children are housed, schooled, fed and loved.
When we meet him, he is ladling rice into bowls from his pick-up truck, and handing them out to the poor and hungry. But we soon learn that the funds needed to continue this work and keep the orphanage’s doors open, are nearly gone. With bankruptcy looming, the home’s director is heartened when she receives word that a Danish billionaire named Jorgen Hansson (Rolf Lassgard) has expressed an interest in their work, to the point of making a sizeable donation.
But Hansson's interest comes with the stipulation that he and Petersen shake hands on the ‘deal’ in Copenhagen. While the owner of the orphanage sees this as a reasonable request, Jacob is reluctant to bow to the wishes of what he believes to be a fat cat dangling a bit of cheese in front of a hungry mouse. But desperate for funds, he acquiesces.
When the children learn that he will be leaving, they worry that he won’t return. Most distraught is a seven-year-old boy named Pramod, whom Jacob has cared for since the child was a baby. They share a special bond, and understanding his distress, Jacob promises to call frequently, and be home in time to celebrate the boy’s upcoming birthday. In Jacob’s mind, it will be a quick trip, just long enough to shake hands, secure the donation, and return to Bombay—cash in hand.
Arriving in Copenhagen, he is whisked away to one of CEO’s five star hotels, where a no nonsense concierge walks him through his penthouse suite, pointing out amenities as she goes. The spacious air-conditioned suite is oozing with opulence, from its large bedrooms, common areas and baths, sauna, Jacuzzi, flat screen TV, cable, frig and bar area, to its private rooftop terrace overlooking the city.
Rather than pleased or impressed, Jacob is disgusted by what he views as a wasteful extravagance. As he notes in a deleted scene, the charge for one night’s lodging in this “ridiculous hotel room” could feed three hundred people in India for a week.
When Jacob finally meets the man who holds the purse strings, he finds that things aren’t quite a settled as he had been led to believe. According to Hansson, the orphanage is but one of three charities vying for the same endowment, and he has yet to make up his mind which will be the lucky benefactor.
Jacob tries to plead his case with an amateur video he has made of the orphanage, but Hansson has other things on his mind, and waves it off only moments after it has begun. “It is a big weekend for me” he says, “and I cannot make a decision now,” explaining that his head is filled with thoughts of his daughter’s impending nuptials. He invites Jacob to the wedding, both at the church and the reception that follows. Realizing that this is more of a demand than a request—not to mention a potential deal-breaker, Jacob attends, only to find that once again, there is far more involved than he—or we— suspected.
Jorgen it seems, has an agenda based on a series of secrets. Over the course of the film we, along with Jacob, Jorgen’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) learn what they are, and the reasons behind what appeared to be a last-minute, while-you-are-here and-have-nothing-else-to-do, invitation.
The twists and turns of this film are, for the most part, totally unexpected. During the first few moments, I thought the plot centered around the orphanage, later, around the bride, still later, around the mother-of-the-bride, then the father-of-the-bride, and so on and so on and so on. The truth is, After the Wedding is about all of the above: a tale of good intentions, questionable decisions, manipulation and love in all its many forms. Parental, marital, young and old, selfish and selfless, this small Danish drama touches on them all.
As in life, the people in this film are as complex as the challenges they face. So often novels and films, plays and programs wrap their story around a single problem and simple solution. Find the glass slipper— live happily ever after. Do this, and you get that. But, as co-writers Anders Thompson Jensen and director Susanne Bier tell us, it is seldom— if ever— as simple as that. Happy endings, or some semblance thereof, are far more likely to come about after a litany of trade-offs. And so it is in this piece, where giving and taking, forgoing and forgiving are all part of the mix.
When all is said and done, you may find yourself wondering if Jacob, Jorgen, Helene and Anna made the right decisions for the right reasons, sacrificing a bit of their ideals, hopes and/or dreams for what they believed to be the greater good. You may, like me, also wonder what the future holds for these fictional but very real characters, and if there will be a happily ever after, after the wedding.
While the story is, in itself, enough to draw you in, a great deal of what’s good about this film has to do with the casting. I was particularly impressed with Stine Fischer Christensen, the young actress who plays the naively happy bride-to-be. She is, as one interviewer put it, ‘delicate’, and Bier treats one of her most poignant scenes just as delicately, making for one of the most effective moments in the film.
Mikkelsen’s Jacob is a quietly, introverted: a soulful soul whose muted exterior hides a wide range of emotions, preconceptions and reservations. He is a man who has experienced failure more often than not, despite his good intentions.
Jorgen Hansson, both on the page and as played by Rolf Lassgard, is perhaps the most complex of the characters, his secrets, intentions, motives and make-up revealed slowly and carefully, frame by frame. Startled by one of his revelations, we find that his wife Helene has a secret of her own. And the hits just keep on coming.
Over the course of the film you will find yourself asking if their actions were triggered by jealousy, love, fear, curiosity, generosity, retribution, or all or none of the above – a tribute to the script, actors and unencumbered direction. And while it is impossible to show every side of a character, be it in a documentary, novel, film or other treatment, this modest motion picture delivers on that score more than many films with far larger names and budgets.
After the Wedding along with the accompanying interview in the Special Features section of the DVD, made me want to see more of Susanne Bier’s work. She has a knack for saying more with the twist of a bottle cap than a page full of dialogue—an admirable talent.
There have been many films—both dramatic and comedic— that have danced around the issues presented in this film: movies that have explored romantic entanglements, the great divide between wealth and poverty, and the use and abuse of power, be it in government, religion, education, geography, business or within the confines a family. Despite its size and limited resources, this little film holds its own.
A 2006 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film, After the Wedding is imperfect in some ways, and sheer perfection in others, which, come to think of it, is much like its characters, and people in general.