Funny how things have a tendency to endure when there’s a bit of money behind them. Funnier still how that tendency barely seems to dwindle at all when those things lack the kind of value deserving of endurance. The suburban family melodrama barely qualifies as even a sub-genre in itself, and volleys only ever more criticism every time another middlebrow indie prestige pic wannabe dabbles in its tepid waters, yet here we are again. Susanne Bier’s 2006 After the Wedding was, for all its white, middle-class worthiness, a cut above whatever expectations may be for yet another Ordinary People knockoff – an American remake 13 years later wasn’t exactly called for, not least in the hands of Bart Freundlich. Alas, one might say the suburban family melodrama is right up Freundlich’s alley – he’s done it before, after all, though it wasn’t up his alley then, and it’s not up anyone’s alley now.
Poor Michelle Williams. Regardless of the quality of the project nor the quality of the role, every time she appears on a screen she’s the most radiant thing on it. Put anything to her and she’ll accomplish it. Demand anything of her and she’ll deliver it. Here, she plays Isabel, an orphanage manager based in Kolkata, fulfilling all the white saviour fantasies projected onto her by lesser artists. She travels, reluctantly, to New York to secure funding for the orphanage from businesswoman Theresa (Julianne Moore), whose daughter’s wedding is taking place over the course of Isabel’s stay. Cue one ridiculous development after another in a relentless burrowing down the deepest hole of narrative nonsense yet known to humanity. It’d be one thing if the movie piled one big twist upon another – one very entertaining thing – and it’d be another if After the Wedding were based in some kind of identifiable reality. But it’s all so contrived, all so picture-perfect, all so faux-profound as to strip away any sense of believability, and in place of twists, the story supplies only infinite layers of silliness.
All the while, Williams battles to maintain composure, and an idea of who her character is that probes deeper than any of the soap opera outlines her castmates summarily fail to expand beyond. She’s tender, reserved yet immensely expressive, every glance, every gesture filled with empathy and intelligence. What a performer! Williams here cements her reputation as an actor capable of creating the most vivid characters without ever resorting to the kind of dramatic grandstanding that fells Moore’s work as Theresa. In her defence, the writing is wretched and the directing equally so, though there’s one major scene of wholly unearned catharsis in the third act in which she lets loose easily the worst acting of her career to date.
The whole thing would be a gloriously screaming, flaming hot mess were it not so terribly dull and predictable. Suburban family melodramas generally are, alas – they trade in signposting every last detail of the narrative, insisting that the most emotionally disengaged of its hoity toity audience should miss no single detail. After the Wedding is a movie for the kind of person who wears knitwear with needlessly large buttons, lest anyone miss the fact that these buttons are, indeed, BUTTONS! You know the type. It’s my mother. It’s an Ann Taylor army. It’s a coffee table cabal, a New England chorus of, “Wasn’t that nice?” But it’s not nice, Moira. It’s tedious. It’s beneath Michelle Williams, and for that, it’s beyond redemption.
This review is from the Sundance London Film Festival. After the Wedding will be released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics on August 9, 2019.