Michelle Williams gives great righteous anger. Like any talented actor, she has an incredible range — from mousy girl Friday to a giggly Marliyn Monroe to Manchester by the Sea‘s grieving matriarch — and an ability to add beautiful little nuances to the biggest of scenes. But give Williams the chance to express a wounded sense of self, and the space to let that pain transform into a sort of slowburn fury, and the woman is unstoppable. No one does quiet storms and emotional boiling-point build-ups like her. She’s a first-rate onscreen raw nerve.
Consider After the Wedding an Exhibit A to her extraordinary abilities — it’s the best, and maybe the only way to think of director Bart Freundlich’s Americanized remake of the 2006 Danish tearjerker. We’re introduced to her sitting in a Lotus position and lording over a group of young Indian children. Her character, Isabel, oversees an orphanage in Calcutta; an impatient frustration over the lack of funds for food, bedding, etc. is a hint of the rage looming on the horizon. Luckily, there’s a possible donor who may have the answer to their financial prayers. The catch is that she wants to meet Isabel in person before officially signing the check.
Enter Theresa (Julianne Moore), her benefactor and bougie counterpart. You could say she has it all: the billion-dollar media placement company she built from scratch, the gorgeous mansion, the handsome metal-sculptor husband (Billy Crudup, handsome and occasionally sculpting metal). Theresa is wheeling and dealing and barking orders into her phone, as well as micromanaging wedding details for her bride-to-be daughter Grace (Abby Quinn). She’s put Isabel up in a swank hotel and given her a driver, which leads to the first of three amazing looks that Williams unleashes. The existential befuddlement at the opulence around her — such luxury, flying in the face of the poverty she’s seen — is all there in this visitor’s face. There is more character development in that confusion then there is most full performances.
The second look comes when the two meet, and Isabel lays out the reasons why her charity is worth Theresa’s time. Then the CEO interrupts a litany of disease stats to discuss a lobster shortage for her child’s reception with her assistant, and…well, remember that part about righteous anger? The disbelief is palpable. The urge to scream choice obscenities about entitlement are burbling to the surface. Then, knowing she has to bear this to get her wards the help they need, she buries it all. (All of this happens before our eyes, and without a word.) Still, Theresa wants to revisit the numbers. Why doesn’t Isabel postpone her trip back home for a few days? Better yet, why not come to the wedding over the weekend?
And this brings us to Look No. 3, which occurs shortly after Isabel arrives late for the ceremony. Sitting in the back, she notices that the bride’s dad seems familiar. A little too familiar. He recognizes her, and is immediately shook. They try to surreptitiously talk to each other, but keep getting interrupted. Isabel attempts to keep her cool, which seems increasingly harder to do. Then the bride gives a speech, and suddenly, an even deeper expression of recognition crosses the guest’s face….
Those who’ve seen Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated original know what happens next, though they might note how swapping the genders this time around — the 2006 version cast Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgård in the lead roles — gives the story’s familial elements a much different resonance. For those who haven’t, it’s still pretty clear where this blend of Sirkian melodrama and actors’ showcase is going, and that from here on in, audiences are in for another round of When Great Actors Give Very Good Performances in OK Films. It’s all over but the shouting, as well as a swerve into TV-movie territory, some unavoidable maudlin interludes and a crying jag scene that kicks the histrionics meter into the red.
A lot of potentially interesting material is left on the table (we find out why Isabel ended up saving kids in India, but very little about what cultural landmines a Westerner with a bindi and a Messiah complex might trod upon) and precious little is added to the the source material’s narrative. After the Wedding knows that it has to leave the heavy lifting to the actors, which is why we get Julianne Moore giving a masterclass on the art of the Vodka tantrum and Billy Crudup investing a sense of melancholia in his boho golden boy. As for Abby Quinn, everything she does here is proof that her who’s-that? turn in Landline (2017) wasn’t a one-off, and that she’ll find lovely little bits of business even in regrettably unformed roles.
But this is Williams’ spotlight, and it’s worth slogging through some of the soapier-to-sludgier aspects to watch her ply her craft. The way she can simultaneously seem transparent and withholding, steel-backed and seconds away from breaking down, enraged and empathetic is indeed awe-inspiring, despite the rickety vehicle in which she’s demonstrating these balancing acts. Pedigree or no, After the Wedding is eventually revealed to be just another glossy mediocrity suffused with upper-crust guilt. After the movie’s over, however, you can’t quite shake how Williams has made you think it’s a better work than it is.