Catching the bouquet

I tortured James Bond, you know. He was nude at the time.

I tortured James Bond, you know. He was nude at the time.

Rated 4.0

Seeing the Danish film After the Wedding takes a nostalgic critic back to a time when foreign movies routinely played at multiplexes, when Academy voters didn’t have to prove they’d seen the official nominees for foreign-language film—because it was assumed they’d seen all those and more during the preceding year.

Not that After the Wedding is likely to bring back those heady days. But director Susanne Bier’s domestic drama is the fourth of 2006’s foreign-film Oscar nominees actually to play a theater in Sacramento, after Water, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Lives of Others. It’s been years since that happened, and even longer since they were all this good.

The central figure of After the Wedding is Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, last seen caning a nude James Bond in Casino Royale). Jacob runs an orphanage in India, where he’s adored by throngs of needy children, and where he returns their devotion. It is only alone in his sparsely furnished room that a pained loneliness seems to surface in Jacob, as he imagines a woman’s soft fingers lightly tracing his body. We don’t know, yet, whether the image is from Jacob’s memory or his imagination.

Jacob’s life is disturbed by an unexpected offer from a prospective benefactor in his native Denmark. The man is willing to grant a princely sum to the orphanage, but only if Jacob himself comes to Copenhagen to accept the offer and agree to terms. Jacob demurs, but his boss insists; the home needs the money.

In Copenhagen that Friday, Jacob meets Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), a blustery, hard-drinking tycoon. Jørgen tosses him an almost unimaginably generous offer, then insists that Jacob come back on Monday to finalize things. In the meantime, he invites Jacob to his daughter’s wedding the next day.

At the wedding, Jørgen’s wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), catches sight of Jacob and her eyes grow troubled. After the ceremony, he spots her outside the church, and they greet one another awkwardly—there’s clearly a history there, even if Jørgen doesn’t notice it. Or does he?

Later, at the reception, the bride Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) rises to toast her parents—especially Jørgen. You knew my mother was pregnant when you met her, she says, but you accepted us both, and I couldn’t have chosen a better father. Jacob’s eyes go wide as he mentally counts off the years. His conclusion is inescapable: Anna is his biological daughter.

Put in those terms, After the Wedding sounds like some three-hankie weeper on Lifetime with Jami Gertz or Kim Delaney. But Bier and her co-writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, have set their sights a little higher than that. One of the movie’s many pleasures is the way it gives its basic soap-opera premise the stark, unvarnished resonance of raw truth captured by an unblinking camera. It’s riveting throughout—and admiration grows in retrospect when we realize how easily it could have toppled over into mawkish melodrama.

That it doesn’t is a tribute not only to the writing, but to Bier’s hand in drawing subtle performances from her four principals. And they have to be subtle, because Bier’s camera is often painfully close. We see Jacob’s eyes go wide at Anna’s toast only because we’re inches from them; it’s entirely credible that the people sitting with him don’t notice a thing.

Mads Mikkelsen, so menacing and reptilian in Casino Royale, here shows another side of his sculpted, handsome face. His Jacob is essentially decent, though haunted and incomplete, and unsure of the right thing to do even after Anna unwittingly drops her bombshell into his life.

As Jørgen, Lassgård has the most complex and, at least initially, enigmatic character. We don’t know how to take him at first—but that’s mainly because for much of the movie we’re still half-waiting for that slide into melodrama that Bier and Jensen are so careful to avoid. Jørgen, we think, can’t possibly be what he seems—if he is, where can the movie go?

After the Wedding is a rare film of conflict without villains. The simple beauty of seeing it is in learning gradually, layer by layer, that Jørgen and indeed all the characters are exactly what they seem. All that and more.