There’s nothing quite as devastating as tragedy treated with sharp and precise Northern European restraint. Susanne Bier is quickly installing herself as a master in the field. Following Open Hearts (02) and Brothers (04), After the Wedding is the Danish director’s third consecutive—and clearly symbiotic—collaboration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (a Dogme favorite who penned Mifune and The King Is Alive, and devised the characters for the recent Zentropa-produced Red Road). Three powerful, emotionally charged films linked by a recurring motif: the random suddenness with which calamity can enter lives, alter them forever, and yet not necessarily destroy them.
In Open Hearts and Brothers, calamity strikes directly and very early on (a paralyzing car crash in the former, the loss of a husband in Afghanistan in the latter). In After the Wedding, the tragedy is not so brutally evident, at least not initially. It reveals itself slowly, in tiny and often mystifying ripples, through cool shades and shaky camerawork that hints at muted undercurrents. But the impact is no less poignant.
The film’s opening sequence introduces us to Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, who also starred in Open Hearts, and more recently shed tears of blood as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale), a Danish good Samaritan who has classically renounced the distasteful comforts of the West for life as a humanitarian aid worker in India, running an orphanage in dire need of funding. A mysterious magnate, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), seems puzzlingly keen to help—on the peculiar condition that Jacob travel to Denmark to meet with him face to face. For reasons that remain unclear at this point, Jacob is particularly unwilling to return to his native land. But the mogul is insistent. So far, the film’s premise has all the trappings of a standard social drama, with the usual purging dose of Western self-loathing. Soon enough, however, Jacob finds himself back in Copenhagen, meeting with the exuberant yet unfathomable Jorgen, and accepting a casual invitation to attend the wedding of the tycoon’s daughter that weekend. At this juncture the film veers off in an entirely different direction.
The seemingly random wedding invitation begins to feel fraught with suspicious intent when Jacob realizes that Jorgen’s wife is his old, never quite forgotten girlfriend Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and that his daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), the bride, is not actually Jorgen’s biological offspring. A bare 30 minutes into the film and the business trip that was supposed to yield a clash of values and a hefty check is suddenly steering into the familiar soap territory of troubling revelations, wedding disasters, and infernal mind games. But once again, Bier and Jensen whisk us away in an unexpectedly thought-provoking direction as the forceful Jorgen, seemingly unfazed by the surrounding simmering melodrama, makes Jacob a surprisingly generous offer. It’s an offer that Jacob, humanist and idealist though he may be, initially greets with the utmost distrust, suspecting the worst.
To divulge more would be a spoiler. However, several more expectations shall be confounded, protective veneers stripped away, and emotional outbursts contained by Bier’s impeccable quartet of actors before this reflection on human weakness, mortality, and the ties that bind comes to its powerfully understated denouement.
The theme of misleading appearances is a classic one. One that can all too easily become mere gimmick. Not in Bier’s hands. In many ways, After the Wedding almost reverses that theme, calling into question the very misleadingness of appearances, putting to the test that acquired habit that we, like Jacob, tend to have, of seeking traces of ill intent in every nook of a situation we deem too replete with good intentions. Bier uses clichés not merely to upend them—that would be too easy—but to force us to challenge those short-cut judgments and ill-conceived assumptions we too often use to gauge the world around us. She confronts us with the good and the noble when we’re too busy seeking proof of treachery, so convinced that the way to hell is paved with good intentions that we’ve almost forgotten that the way to heaven is as well.