Deducing from things that have been announced and implied at recent ComiCons, plus the news that additional release dates have been reserved for still-mysterious projects, fans are rejoicing that at least 14 new movies set in the Marvel Universe are planned to happen by the end of 2022. This is wonderful news for many consumers, but it can also be seen as a sad reminder of how tough it is for original stories – films that are not sequels, not remakes, not based on existing franchises – to get made in contemporary Hollywood.
Without begrudging these fans their fun, it’s reasonable to feel somewhat troubled, or at least unsatisfied, when most of the characters we encounter on the big screen fall squarely on one side or the other of the divide between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. “Troubled” because exposure to such narratives can lead viewers into the mindset of interpreting reality according to such a Manichaean hierarchy as well. It becomes all too easy for demagogues to practice their divisive wiles on citizens who think of the world as being pigeonholed into good people and bad people, just like in the comics. It means that we don’t have to feel obligated to engage with those we perceive as the Other.
So it comes as a refreshing change when a well-made film appears in which the characters are, like ourselves, capable of both good and bad behavior, and also capable of change. To get there, writers, directors and actors all have to be willing to show us protagonists who are sometimes unlikable. Good drama happens, without the crutch of violent confrontations, when relatable characters are faced with difficult choices, in which any option chosen will lead to unhappiness for someone. We all face such situations in our lifetimes, and in retrospect our choices don’t always turn out to be the best ones. Our good intentions sometimes pave the road to Hell for someone we love, or at least don’t want to hurt.
Judged by these parameters, Bart Freundlich’s After the Wedding is an amply rewarding couple of hours of cinema, despite being a remake – of Dogme 95-school Danish director Susanne Bier’s 2006 film of the same name. Freundlich does a provocative gender-swap of Bier’s two main characters, here portrayed admirably by two powerhouse actresses: the fearless Julianne Moore (who is married to the director) and Michelle Williams. Williams plays Isabel, a deeply committed social worker who runs an orphanage in India that is direly strapped for cash. One day she gets a call to come to Manhattan to meet with a wealthy, hard-driving CEO of a media marketing company who is thinking about donating a couple of million to the orphanage. Isabel has no wish to leave India, and especially Jai, the sensitive orphan whom she has raised since finding him as a toddler abandoned by the side of the road. But for Theresa, the philanthropist played by Moore, nothing else will do but for Isabel to come in person.
Her arrival is timed for the eve of the wedding of Theresa’s stepdaughter Grace (Abby Quinn), at which Isabel discovers to her horror that Grace’s father is a significant person from her own past: Oscar (Billy Crudup), a sculptor. Williams plays Isabel as a highly internalized personality, not saying more than is absolutely necessary, not displaying much emotion in front of other people. So it’s a master class in acting to read the thoughts moving across her face as she puts two and two together at this wedding of strangers to which she has, ostensibly by happenstance, been invited.
Where Isabel is withholding, Theresa, by contrast, is all out-front. Her business acumen has yielded tremendous success and power, which she wields at the office remorselessly, bullying her personal assistant but somehow winning undying admiration and loyalty from her staff. This is a leader who gets things done and does not suffer fools gladly: a role usually reserved for male characters, so it’s a delight to see Moore run with it. At home, in an idyllic upscale suburb on the North Shore of Long Island, Theresa barks brisk orders to her household staff (there’s a wedding about to happen there, after all) but puts her ubiquitous cellphone aside when it’s time to interact with her adored twin boys.
At first glance, Theresa seems to be the more manipulative player in this ever-shifting game of a family with a complicated past and an uncertain future. But Isabel has some guilty secrets as well, hidden behind her wall of reserve and her righteous mission saving abandoned kids in the Third World. Oscar and Grace, caught in the oh-so-polite crossfire, are not entirely blameless either. And that’s precisely what makes this story a joy: Everyone means well, and everyone occasionally makes poor life choices for which someone else has to suffer. There are ultimately no easy roads to walk, even when you have millions of dollars at your command.
After the Wedding is an emotional rollercoaster, its rapid-fire plot twists accelerating the closer it draws to its climax. There’s an occasional heavyhanded gesture – an overly obvious metaphor for family fractures in the form of recurring appearances of a fallen robin’s nest, for example – but the acting is so consistently good (including from promising newcomer Abby Quinn), the writing and directing so tight and the dramatic momentum so compelling that a few such lapses are forgivable. You’ll come out feeling gut-punched, but in a good way. We need more movies like this to be made: ones where the bad guys aren’t alien overlords bent on world domination, but rather the weaker sides of our own fallible natures.