dir: Susanne Bier
[img_assist|nid=774|title=Let's see who can be the most melodramatic|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=300]
It’s a testament to the abilities of the actors involved, and the skill of director Susanne Bier that this story, which sounds like the most contrived melodrama you could ever imagine, works, and works well. Bier is one of only a handful of Danish directors I can think of (the others being notorious overwrought hack Lars Von Trier and the guy who made the scuzzily vile Pusher trilogy), but she shows here why she’s such a respected director both at home and internationally.
The key is effective drama. In this entire film, there is but one scene that doesn’t work acting-wise or dramatically. That’s one scene out of dozens. That’s a pretty good hit to miss ratio.
Jacob (played by Mads Mikkelson, who most people would know as the villain from the most recent Bond film) is a strange, nervy kind of guy who works at an Indian orphanage. He speaks fluent English, and a bit of the local language, but clearly he’s not from around here, though he’s spent twenty years in the country.
Orphanages need two things to keep running: an energy source derived from harvesting the misery of orphans, which is an abundant, renewable resource, and donated money from wealthy philanthropists with guilty consciences. Jacob’s orphanage needs money to continue. When word comes that a Danish organisation is willing to give the orphanage millions of dollars worth of blood money, with the one precondition being that Jacob himself has to return for a brief visit to Denmark, Jacob is surprisingly reluctant.
For reasons we don’t know, the thought of returning to his native home, despite the fact that getting the money will keep the orphans in the penury, rags and gruel they’re accustomed to, fills Jacob with dread. He seems a strange chap, though the orphans seem to like him. The Indian director of the orphanarium won’t take any of Jacob’s guff, though, and tells him either he goes or the orphanarium shuts down.
Jacob, almost sulking, returns, wearing an ill-fitting suit, and has to go through presentations and interviews as if he’s getting a job. He keeps his eye on the prize at all times, and puts up with increasing humiliations all with the intention of helping the kids.
It’s all very strange. The corporate billionaire he keeps meeting with treats him alternately with affection and contempt, for no reason we can readily see, apart from the natural contempt wealthy people have for those who work with orphans and animals. The billionaire tyrant, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) has a restless, almost self-destructive energy to him, and keeps taunting Jacob, and teasing him with the possibility of the money.
None of it makes sense to Jacob. He made a promise to Pramod, one of the orphans, that he would be back in time to celebrate the kid’s birthday, and he is quite often tempted just to pick up and leave, especially since his dealings with the philanthropist seem to be one unceasing tease that will never result in payoff.
Jorgen is an alternately affectionate and brutish man, and seems to harbour both great need and great anger towards Jacob, though the two have never met before. He’s also very manipulative and something of a bully, to the extent that he bullies Jacob into drinking heavily with him to the point where they get thrown out of a restaurant.
Knowing that Jacob desperately wants the money, and desperately wants to leave, Jorgen compels Jacob to stay at least until the weekend, and to come to his daughter’s wedding, which, as coincidence would have it, is just about to occur.
You, gentle reader and viewer, should be able to figure out that the fix is in, at least even a few minutes before Jacob does. When he is surprised by the identity of the bride’s mother, and the mother in turn is startled to see him there, you know that the only one who’s not surprised by anything is Jorgen, who has orchestrated all of this for reasons we still won’t be able to grasp for a while.
If this were a product of Hollywood, it would have been treated as a comedy, and would probably have starred Jennifer Aniston or Julia Roberts, and would have involved one crushingly unfunny occasion of mistaken identity or pratfall after another. Bier isn’t that kind of director, and handles the material deftly. The scenes don’t have the feeling of being overcooked or overworked in the rehearsal sense, and err on the side of understatement where melodrama would have been tempting.
The core of four characters: Jacob, Jorgen, Jorgen’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and their daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) work brilliantly together. One scene especially stands out as to how strong their take is on the important elements of what they’re trying to do and convey: where Anna goes to visit Jacob in his hotel room, both complete strangers to each other, fumble over the polite niceties in matters as simple as opening a bottle of water. Great scene.
Mads Mikkelsen is just so understated and wonderful in this that I wish I could just watch more films with him. In the Pusher trilogy he played a moron so monumentally moronic that you almost believe he’s that repugnant as an individual. In Casino Royale he played a villain so chilly that I caught the flu just watching him. I’m not sure how much range he possesses, but the acting I’ve seen him do thus far, especially in this flick, has impressed me no end.
In his hands Jacob is a pretty interesting, if repressed, character. We find out enough detail about Jacob as he might have been prior to his Damascene conversion into a charity worker to understand two important issues: how he became who he is today, and why Helene, who was travelling with him in India twenty years ago, was compelled to leave him.
Jorgen, who verges on the brink of becoming an ogre has, it is painfully revealed, a reason for his actions that goes beyond what I thought was their origin initially, being malevolence or his being an arsehole for the sake of it. Being the kind of man who feels he can shape both his destiny and the reality of those around him, when he’s confronted with something he cannot alter, of course he desperately tries to manipulate other people’s lives into some semblance of order, to ensure that people are looked after even when he’s not around to bully them into doing what he wants. In a different film, he would have been a villain, but he’s certainly not here, though there is much ambivalence in him.
I cannot recommend the film highly enough even if it didn’t use the beautiful music of Sigur Ros at crucial points. I enjoyed the entire film so thoroughly, and was impressed almost beyond measure so many times that I can honestly say it’s one of the best and most dramatically satisfying films I’ve seen in some time. About the only thing I would change is a scene where Rolf has something of a breakdown, but even that scene is necessary, and probably makes more sense than I give it credit for, considering what occurs directly after it.
It’s an actors film, not a David Lean-style cinematographic wonder making you gasp at those Danish vistas and architecture. It’s filmed tightly with handheld cameras, giving it an added intimacy without sacrificing the need to construct scenes in the best manner possible in order to allow the actors to tell/sell the story.
Colour me very impressed with everyone involved. What’s emphasised most of all is that weddings are rarely end points in the trajectory of people’s lives: they’re often the starting points into bigger and greater dramas for everyone concerned. So be reassured that there is no picnic, no drinks on the beach and no comfortable happy endings After the Wedding.
8 times I’m amazed Jacob didn’t punch Jorgen in the face at multiple points out of 10
“Can I ask how you’ve been?”
- “For the last twenty years? You know, ups and downs.” – After the Wedding.