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Change Your Family

Emotional extremes and mystery characterize this Best Foreign Film nominee

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Poet David Ray wrote a poem entitled "The Greatest Poem in the World," which described a favorite bit of writing. "It summed up everything!" wrote Ray.  I thought of that phrase while watching director Susanne Bier's new film, After the Wedding. It doesn't exactly wrap up everything, but it does address a variety of complex family issues, including marriage, commitment, conflict, parenting, death and loss, as well as love and the meaning of existence, and it leaves the viewer feeling satisfied at the film's conclusion. 

In After the Wedding, Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been caring for abandoned street children in Bombay for many years, is summoned from the orphanage to the home of wealthy philanthropist Jorgen Hanssen (Rolf Lassgard) in Copenhagen. Hanssen can support and expand the work Jacob is doing by making a large financial contribution to the project. Jacob is reluctant to leave the children and thinks the trip to Copenhagen is unnecessary. He feels much more at home in India as a part of the close-knit relationships of the orphan children.

"Is it because the houses are so far apart that the people are far apart?" one of the children asks him, referring to the people of Copenhagen, and Jacob says yes, the wealthy are "idiots." But Hanssen insists on meeting Jacob before making the contribution, and Jacob does need the money to keep the children fed, clothed, educated and off the streets. Jacob arrives in Copenhagen just in time to attend the wedding of Hanssen's daughter, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), and meet her mother, Helene (Sidse Babette Knudsen). It's an invitation no one in his situation would want to miss, for at the wedding, he learns there is much more brewing here than simply a potential monetary gift. 

After the Wedding contains a series of surprises that moves the story forward and threatens to get it so complicated that it will be difficult to unravel everything in two hours. But Bier does an excellent job of smoothly resolving all the complex issues and problematic relationships without ever seeming rushed or losing the entranced focus of the viewer.   

Lassgard is especially good as the wealthy benefactor. His energetic acting displays a wide range of emotions, from extreme frustration to passionate affection, in a convincing and contagious manner. The more stoic, but intense, Mikkelsen is also impressive as he finds himself sandwiched between trying to fund his work in India and deal with some very serious and unanticipated surprises that confront him on this errand. Knudsen and Christensen are certainly one of the most interesting mother/daughter relationships on the screen. There's a loving tension between them that keeps their relationship connected in the middle of deceit and accusations. Christensen especially is a young, sweet actress with a special talent for conveying emotional extremes. The emotional intensity of the performances is not overacted and fits neatly within the context of the story. A risky rendezvous in a motel room between Christensen and Mikkelsen, a scene in which both are required to perform very tentatively, like two people tiptoeing across thin ice over deep water, is also exceptionally well-done.

As the story unfolds, Jacob is haunted by the faces of the orphans in India who need his care, and Hanssen by the heads of dead animals hanging in his trophy room. Jacob soon realizes that Hanssen does not really care about the orphanage or the needs of homeless children in India. There is no profit to be made from donating millions to the children. So what is Hanssen up to?  Inexorable and excruciating changes are taking place in the lives of these four characters, changes that will cause heartbreak and distress along with joy and satisfaction. Hanssen has concocted an extraordinary plan to prepare for the future because it will come, ready or not.

After the Wedding is, like Almodovar's Volver, a relational mystery. However the mysteries and the relationships are more intricately intertwined in this film. Bier (Brothers, Open Hearts) skillfully interweaves the parts of her story, revealing exactly the right amount of information at the right time. Bier excels at successfully compacting a story of potentially epic length into two hours without leaving film-goers feeling as if they've missed something. After the Wedding, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, also has an intriguing musical score, including tracks from the Weather Girls and the Icelandic group Sigur Ros.

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