There is a scene in After the Wedding where the new bride Anna gets up and announces that it’s not usually customary for a bride to give a toast, but something is bound to go wrong at some point, so she might as well get it over with. It’s like she’s unknowingly cushioning the blow. She does not know, and the audience certainly doesn’t know, the gravity of what she says next. There are two people in the room who do. Anna voices how much she loves her parents even though she realizes Jorgen is not her real father, she cherishes him all the same.
I try and not use the label “tearjerker” lightly, but with this Danish film from director Susanne Bier, I mean it wholeheartedly. It cuts so deeply because there’s a bitter-sweetness to it that lingers, and that only occurs when you’re actually invested in characters. We meet Jacob first (Mads Mikkelsen), a middle-aged man, who seems to have built a rewarding life teaching in India. But on a trip back to his homeland, to hopefully acquire some funding, he comes across a familial secret that impacts him greatly. It all happens because the friendly businessman Jorgen invites his new acquaintance to his daughter’s wedding the following night. We get the film’s main jolt during the wedding and the whole story is never the same afterward because it flips everyone’s life upside down.
The next big revelation comes out when loving wife Helene presses Jorgen about his heath. Anna has her own problems when she walks in on her new husband with another woman. These up the drama, but it’s important to make it clear that this story doesn’t rely on soppy drama to maintain the stakes. The peaks are powerful, but even in the valleys, it keeps our interest. Certainly the melodrama is deeply jarring, however, it only delivers such an impact, because the people involved are far from one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. This could have easily becomes some Danish attempt at a telenovela and yet it does not. Far from it, Jacob, Jorgen, Helene, and their daughter Anna are figures, who we can almost feel the contours of. They bring to mind glimpses of friends or family perhaps. Generally good folks, who have made mistakes along the road.
In his past, Jacob acknowledges a drinking problem and sleeping with other women. Now he runs an orphanage in India and he’s matured greatly. Helene admits to not knowing all the answers for the decisions she made as a young woman. She probably should have done things differently, but the bottom line is that she loves her daughter deeply and is completely devoted to her husband. Jorgen might be a mogul and a powerful man, but he also has a deep devotion to his family. Seeing him with his kids you know he is a good father because he loves and provides for them in all possible ways. He actually makes time for them and it shows.
Hellene voices the audiences concern that all this drama is too great of a coincidence, but overshadowing that detail is something very heartfelt that Jorgen says. When he knows he probably doesn’t have too much more life ahead of him, he voices the sentiment that time is so utterly important. Furthermore, every relationship, every acquaintance we make, is important to life. Without those, life is meaningless. That’s the core of this film. It’s people parsing through the mess and finding what’s important. That’s what keeps Jorgen and Hellene together. That’s what makes Anne cherish her parents so deeply. That’s what makes it so difficult for Jacob as he weighs whether to stay in Denmark or go back to India.