April 15, 2007

MOVIES: After the Wedding (Susanne Bier, 2006/2007 US)

Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) runs a struggling orphanage in India; Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård) is a Danish businessman considering a large donation. Jørgen insists, however, that Jacob must come to Copenhagen for an in-person interview. Jacob isn't thrilled with the idea, but with the orphanage on the brink of closing, he goes back to Denmark. Over the weekend of Jacob's stay, Jørgen's daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) is getting married, and having nothing better to do (and needing to suck up to Jørgen), Jacob accepts an invitation to the wedding. He is greatly surprised when he recognizes Jørgen's wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as a woman he was involved with 20 years ago.

That's a fairly obvious setup, and I suspect that you can already imagine how the rest of the story plays out -- if you can't guess Jørgen's real motivation for summoning Jacob to Denmark, then you just don't see enough movies -- but as in her previous movie, Brothers, director/co-writer Bier overcomes the melodramatic elements of the story to produce a fine piece of entertainment. After the Wedding was one of the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees earlier this year, and while it doesn't quite reach the level of fellow nominees Pan's Labyrinth or The Lives of Others, it's certainly deserving of recognition and a wider audience.

Bier gets excellent performances from her actors. Mikkelsen, who will be most familiar to American audiences as the villain in last year's Casino Royale, makes it clear from the beginning that Jacob's philanthropic gestures are motivated as much by the need to atone -- for what, we don't quite know at first -- as by the desire to do good. Knudsen's Helene is a woman dealing with personal betrayals on all fronts, and her anger is palpable.

Best of all, though, is Lassgård. Jørgen seems at first to be a cartoon character, the standard pompous captain of industry, but as his scheming is revealed to be both more selfless and more selfish than we'd originally understood, he becomes the movie's most sympathetic character.

Bier's first American film, Things We Lost in the Fire, will be released later this year, and it will be a fine test of her skill with actors; if she can get a decent performance out of Halle Berry, then there may be nothing she can't do. But while we're waiting for that, After the Wedding shouldn't be missed.

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