Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier
's After the Wedding is about orphans, literally and figuratively, for every character in it has been orphaned in one way or other from their proper lives. In bringing her themes to life, Bier follows inauspiciously in the footsteps of Jean Renoir, Louis Malle, and, more recently, Jane Campion, among other Western filmmakers, in using India as a pat, easily available symbol of misery and moral courage.
Bier stakes out the slum warrens of Mumbai to get our attention where we find Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen
), a Danish expatriate, running what the press notes called a "woefully under-financed" orphanage. (Honestly, isn't everything in India, depicted in Western cinema, "woeful" and "under-financed"?) Jacob is surrogate daddy to one of the orphans, Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani), whom he's raised since infancy, and who represents his only vital and most human relationship. Article continues below
Desperate for funds for his orphanage and to expand its outreach, Jacob reluctantly travels back to Denmark where Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård
), a wealthy businessman, wants to meet with him and make him a healthy investment offer. Bearish and imposing, Jørgen prevails over Jacob to attend the lavish wedding for his daughter Anne (Stine Fischer Christensen
). At the wedding, Jacob discovers that Jørgen's wife is, in fact, his old flame, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen
), with whom he parted ways in India, 20 years ago. If that isn't enough, the revelation that Jørgen is not Anne's biological father and that Helene left Jacob while she was pregnant with Ann give Jacob the shock of his life.
Jacob and Anne initiate a dance of reconciliation, while he and Helene clear the air of past grievances. Still, one can't shake the suspicion that Jørgen's pulling the strings here, he's the puppetmaster manipulating not just the reunion of man-woman and father-daughter, but also how and where Jacob will spend the rest of his life. Jørgen's motives become evident eventually, but by then Bier and Jensen's story has already worn out much of its welcome.
The first third of After the Wedding is, on the whole, marvelous filmmaking, graceful yet assertive. Bier capably conveys the psychologies of her characters through her intimate compositions, anxious editing rhythms, and use of leitmotifs -- the game trophy heads that decorate Jørgen's mansion become powerful symbols of death and disconnection. Similarly, the performances here are uniformly top-notch, with Mikkelsen, Lassgård, Christensen, and Knudsen all serving the script honestly and intensely.
Trouble, though, is that Jensen's script, with Bier's direction marching in step, doesn't know when to quit plotting, as if the filmmakers lacked enough faith in the characters and the premise they created. As a result, After the Wedding loses all sense of its early poetry -- the gentle, mood-driven qualities that set the movie's tone -- in order to accommodate what becomes an increasingly leaden melodrama. At its heart, this is a simple and lovely story about family responsibility, and doing right by those you love. But it collapses under the weight of one calamity after another, each one worse and more tedious than the last. Gradually, Jørgen's self-obsessed hysterics commandeer the spotlight and push aside the original story involving Jacob, and his conundrum over whether to return to his adopted family in India (comprised of those who have no families) or to stay true to his own, heretofore unknown family, back in his homeland.
Little Pramod's suggestion to Jacob which, roughly paraphrased, amounts to "keep your garbage in your own yard," is apt, I think, for all Western filmmakers who have and will use India as a moral panacea so that their white characters can feel better about themselves. While I'm at it and for what it's worth, I hereby declare a moratorium on any such filmmakers entering India (or any Third World country, for that matter) in hopes of preventing any further culturally condescending journeys into the white man's heart of darkness.