Warning: Major spoilers in this film review
When Forrest Gump innocently said, “Life is a box of chocolates, you never know which one you’re going to get”, he wasn’t aware of the depth of his own words, but in a way he was summing up life in a very apt fashion. As envious but ignorant human beings, we often wish for shares of others who seem to be getting all the sweeter ones, but little do we know that life is all about equilibrium. Ask a dying man with loads of money to spend but no time to spend it; Or a lonely, penniless social worker suddenly finding a family after 20 years; Or a wonderful woman on the verge of losing a loving husband, but finding an old flame . In Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding, these characters, with their own share of chocolates – bitter, sweet and bittersweet - show us how unpredictability of life can be ruthless, pleasant, life-changing or a bit of all.
Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen who we know as James Bond’s arch-nemesis in Casino Royale), a morose looking social worker dedicated to improving the lives of slum children, works in an orphanage in Mumbai. Of all the children, he is particularly attached to Pramod, a young darling who reciprocates his love and considers Jacob a father figure. Crumbling because of the dire financial situation, the orphanage is destined to shut down, until it finds a savior in Jorgen – a wealthy businessman based in Denmark, Jacob’s homeland – who is willing to allocate funds for its development. But there is a catch here – Jorgen would like to meet with Jacob personally before he dispatches the funds. Jacob, reluctant to go back to Denmark for unknown reasons, initially refuses to comply with his requests, but egged on by the administrator, finally relents and packs his bags, promising Pramod and other children to return soon with the money and a new hope for them.
In Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), he finds a tough businessman, but a kind family-loving man, who doesn’t seem to be much interested in how the money is going to be used, but is keen on making a difference. Invited by Jorgen to his daughter’s wedding, Jacob is unprepared for what’s next. At the wedding, he meets Jorgen’s beautiful wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who is none other than Jacob’s ex-girlfriend. Only if this were the only jolt!
At the wedding, Jorgen's and Helene’s daughter Anna confesses during the toast that even though Jorgen is not her biological father, he’s been extremely kind and caring. It doesn’t take Jacob more than a moment to put two and two together after this life-changing revelation to figure out that Anna’s his own daughter, and he storms out of the wedding after a brief chat with Helene. She promises to meet up with him the next day to clear the air, but is unable to confront him, fearful of the consequences. Pacing restlessly in his room, he finally decides to show up at her residence where she ultimately confesses in front of Jorgen to a seething-with-anger Jacob the truth about Anna. Soon Anna, who is also unaware of Jacob’s existence (apparently Helene told her that Jacob was dead), gets to know too and she’s not too happy about being kept in the dark either.
Anna and Jacob start spending time together, but the surprises haven’t really ended there (when it rains, it pours!). Anna finds out that her new husband is cheating on her, but this is more of secondary information – Anna’s marriage was never the focus of the film. The shocker for the family comes now – Jorgen is a dying man. And his last wish is to see his family happy and complete. For him Jacob is the Godsend who’s come to take his place. Surprisingly, Jorgen does not claim to know about Jacob’s whereabouts and maintains that Jacob’s entry into their lives was a mere coincidence. Jorgen leaves for his heavenly abode, but not before extracting a promise out of Jorgen to settle down in Denmark and take care of the family. In the last scene, Jacob urges a crestfallen Pramod to accompany him to Denmark since he won’t come back for good – an offer the determined kid turns down to stay with his people. They both settle for occasional meetings in the future.
In After the Wedding, you won’t find a lot to appreciate if you are a die-hard soaps aficionado who’s “been there, seen that” (Of course, it is a hardly a maudlin drama full of cheesy dialogues or rivers of tears). Also, because of the first ten minutes, if you think you are going to watch a film on India, or the subject of poverty, slums, etc., you are in for some disappointment - There are few shots during the beginning and the end where dozens of destitute kids are cramped together in the few square inches of the screen, and that’s about it. But if you’re in the mood for an emotionally touching flick that sensitively captures a multitude of emotions across a range of characters, each of whom is having trouble swallowing their own “chocolates”, you may find a movie worthy of your time and attention.
A large part of that credit goes to the script that carves out these characters and the cast that did justice to them. Mads Mikkelsen is tailor-made for the role of Jacob. He’s affectionate in a very formal way and the moment the camera is on him, his face tells a story without stretching the facial nervous more than necessary. The viewer doesn’t know what’s going on his mind, but it’s not difficult to guess going by his demeanor. His anger, his breakdowns, his frustrations are so understated that we may feel he’s faking it all if we don’t look too carefully at the creases on his face.
On the other hand is Jorgen (played superbly by Rolf Lassgard), the wealthy, astute yet altruistic businessman with a no-nonsense attitude and a heart of gold. When with family, he is the ideal father, ideal husband and an ideal son, and it’s easy to envy him if one doesn’t know what’s in his mind. His kindness perhaps stems from the knowledge of approaching end, and until we find out, he’s strike us as a man who’s too good to be true. What he does still makes him a great man, but we wonder if there is a pinch of selfishness too behind his actions. As for Helene, her eyes are so expressive that the cameraman capitalizes on it, and lets them talk to us. In a particular scene, practically a complete conversation is carried out between Jacob and Helene from a distance through their eyes, after Anna reveals the true relationship between her and Jorgen. It would go like this if it actually happened:Jacob: Is this for real? Helene: Yes Jacob: Is she who I think she is? Helene: <Silence since that would be appropriate> Jacob: Answer me! Is she my child? Helene: <No response> Jacob: <Screaming> Is she my daughter? Helene: Yes, Yes, Yes. Jacob: Why the hell didn’t you ever tell me?
(The real conversation takes place later, but is almost superfluous – except for the knowledge that Jacob cheated once on Helene and was a drug-addict before he turned over a new leaf and left for India).
All’s well that ends well! Everyone ultimately realizes that his or her solace lies in each other – Jacob in his newfound family, Jorgen in Jacob, Anna in Jacob and Helene, and so forth. As viewers, we feel that it’s the perfect ending for a tale where everyone seems to be in agony.
Hats off to Susanne Bier, for she knows how to engage us with enviable story-telling skills. She introduces new characters almost at every crossroad of the film, yet ensures that they all fit in. Perhaps it’s not a difficult job, especially when the script itself is so believable that it could have been inspired from real life, with a few enhancements of course! Camerawork is pretty impressive as well. Every character gets his or her share of screen space, and even though it’s clear that Mikkelsen is the star, the other actors get the attention as well (and they don’t disappoint). The camera movement and editing deserve special mention in this regard.
After the Wedding is a bit of an emotional ride and if you’re up for it, I’d recommend this film that is sure to make your eyes moist and your heart tender. Even though it didn’t win the Oscar for the best foreign film (it lost out to a very worthy contender – The Lives of Others), it easily rates as the one of the best drama films of 2006.