Susanne Bier, director of After the Wedding, has been one of the luminaries of Denmark's Dogme movement -- films grounded in real-life concerns featuring naturalistic acting and as little production artifice as possible.
At their purest, they eschewed scores, artificial lighting, tricky camera angles and, of course, special effects to make their stories all the more immediate and vital. And their stories have been wrenchingly emotional -- Bier's earlier and excellent Open Hearts was about the impact of an auto accident on a marriage and Brothers was about war's aftermath.
After the Wedding modifies the Dogme approach -- it uses brief flashbacks, for instance, and in general features more planned and even downright scenic camera work. But it sticks with the importance of naturalistic acting and wrenchingly emotional stories about life's hard lessons.
In fact, it piles on the wrenching emotionalism a little excessively. There are times it feels a closer kin to Hollywood tearjerkers like Stepmom than to the deep psychological revelations of that patron saint of serious Scandinavian cinema, Ingmar Bergman. One gets especially restless as After the Wedding unfolds with hearing the various characters say to each other some variation of "Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
Still, Bier's skill with actors makes After the Wedding a powerful film.
(It received an Academy Award nomination this year as Best Foreign Language Film.) Also helping greatly is her eye for dramatic natural lighting and her sense of handheld-camera rhythms. She and her co-writer, Dogme veteran Anders Thomas Jensen (who also devised the characters for Andrea Arnold's current Red Road, a drama set in Glasgow), also are subtle enough to give this film a class consciousness without making class the determinant in separating the good guys from the bad.
Mads Mikkelsen, a major star in Denmark, plays the 40ish Jacob, who has retreated from the consumerist capitalism of his homeland to run an orphanage and food program in India. After the Wedding begins there with a long shot looking down in solidarity with Jacob at the teeming and impoverished masses.
There is a wired-tight tension, a repressed and gloomy anger in his handsome face yet he also has a tender, proud smile when caring for an 8-year-old orphan who has become his favorite. Jacob is a loner, but one with a sense of purpose. Mikkelsen, incidentally, played the villainous Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and seems primed for major international stardom. He's consistently excellent here.
The orphanage is in trouble financially, but an unknown benefactor in Copenhagen might be willing to donate several million dollars -- but only if Jacob comes there for an interview. Jacob seems hesitant, and not just because he hates pleading with the rich. He senses a danger awaiting him.
In Copenhagen, he stays at a luxury hotel -- a converted department store -- that neatly encapsulates the world he has rejected. It has Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV, a private rooftop deck. His would-be benefactor, Jorgen, is a powerful middle-aged man who sort of toys with him. Jowly and overweight, with brushed-back brown hair that looks too youthful on him and with a resonantly stentorian bass-baritone voice, he seems set up by the film to be Jacob's "evil" opposite.
But Bier (and writer Jensen) do something very interesting with Jorgen (played terrifically by Rolf Lassgard). They introduce the audience to him before we or Jacob even know who he is, not in the boardroom but driving to his country estate playing the kitschy "It's Raining Men" on the radio. At first, there's a certain pained, troubled look on his face but it gives way to joie de vivre.
At home, he plays with his young twins and then falls into the bathtub fully clothed while friskily playing with his luminously youthful-looking wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen). It's a brilliantly conceived short scene that establishes his humanity and keeps us liking him, even when we later witness his boorish, drunken behavior. It makes the film work.
Since Jorgen asks Jacob to stay over for a weekend while he decides on a donation, he casually invites him to the wedding of his daughter, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen). Suffice to say from the film's title, the wedding is a catalyst for many secrets to be revealed about the way the various characters' lives are both intertwined and unresolved. Much of what subsequently happens revolves around Helene, and Knudsen has the same kind of sparkling intelligence and unadorned beauty as Laura Linney.
Bier's work at this point is far more interesting than the stagey agitprop of another Dogme veteran, Lars von Trier. Yet if it's closer to Hollywood melodrama than to Sweden's Bergman, it's because the conflicts affecting the characters all have their origin in something external rather than purely psychological. There are only so many such external conflicts one film can have before, however artfully done, it gets weighed down by melodrama.
After the Wedding flirts too closely with that to be great, but thankfully is too smart and well acted to succumb to it. Grade: B-