At first look, Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) appears dedicated to the orphanage he helps to run in Mumbai. He spends his days teaching youngsters to speak English or playing football with them in the dirt courtyard. While his lanky, sunburned figure is surely striking among his very short, energetic, brown-skinned charges, he’s not inclined to stand out. Rather, he’s focused on the work at hand, say, ensuring that the children have food to eat and books to read.
This is hardly easy. And it means that, within minutes of the start of After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet), Jacob must journey back to Denmark in search of funding. He hates to leave the kids, even for a short time, especially as his trip upsets eight-year-old Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani), whom he’s sort of adopted as his own special project. The boy at first refuses to look at him when Jacob comes to say goodbye, then runs after him in order to be caught up in a warm, briefly wonderful embrace. Jacob insists he will return for Pramod’s birthday, just eight days away.
As soon as he utters it, the promise seems fated to be broken. This dramatic contrivance exposes both Jacob’s profligate past and the plot’s inelegance. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t frequently absorbing, or that its probing at the complicated effects of privilege, entitlement, and arrogance isn’t worthy. It is to say that the essential elements are familiar, as Jacob is caught between his devotion to his current project, embodied by the adorable and sadly wise Pramod, and his discovery of another obligation, left over from his previous life. “If I were rich I would be happy,” says Pramod earnestly, imagining the scene Jacob will be entering. “I know you would,” soothes Jacob, “but people there are idiots.”
Jacob’s harsh opinion will be illustrated repeatedly during his stay in Copenhagen, where he’s scheduled to meet with potential financier Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård). The camera stays close on his face as he makes his way by cabs, planes, and limos to the fancy room he’s assigned for his visit, Jacob carrying only a small bag and a single suit. The young woman who gives him a tour of his designated space—several times larger than room where some 45 children sleep back in India—is efficient and professional, her hands flip-flipping as she points out his many amenities: flat screen, sauna, DVD player, mini-bar, window screens that operate by remote. Jacob lies awake at night, smoking cigarettes.
He’s fetched for his meeting by young Christian (Christian Tafdrup), who explains that the hotel used to be a department store, and voices repeatedly his admiration for his boss, Jørgen, who rose up from humble beginnings to become a billionaire. It so happens that Christian will be marrying his boss’ daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) that very weekend. The initial meeting with Jørgen is awkward: impatient with Jacob’s presentation, including the videotape he’s made to show off the progress the orphanage has made with precious little money behind it, he invites him to the wedding. Jacob, who had hoped to make the pitch and get back to work in a couple of days, protests, but given the amount of money he might solicit from Jørgen, he agrees—reluctantly.
(L-R) Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Helene”) and Mads Mikkelsen (“Jacob”)
At the wedding—and after it—Jørgen’s reasons for maneuvering Jacob into this patently uncomfortable situation become clear. Turns out that Jacob once shared a relationship with Jørgen’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen). A onetime Dogme disciple, director Susanne Bier here assembles the sorts of coincidences that typify both melodrama and Dogme, collapsing emotional and political revelations into earnest displays of pain. (Amid all the solemnity, the few, sometimes strained moments of pleasure—dancing, joking—are extremely welcome.) As much as Jørgen insists he holds nothing against the bracingly handsome Jacob, the tensions among all the players in this soapy set-up quickly come to the surface, with the camera resolutely close on teary or angry faces.
Jacob’s focus on his orphanage means that he initially resists reopening any sort of conflict with Helene. Their youthful parting was on bad terms; as she explains to Anna, one too delicately, he “fucked everything with a pulse.” When Anna asks if she now sees the relationship as a mistake, Helene sighs, her eyes revealing not only her own weariness, but also her knowledge that Anna will eventually learn a similar lesson. “I was really in love with Jacob,” she says wistfully, “but I was also really unhappy.” Anna looks at her closely, trying too hard to parse such seeming contradiction.
Composed primarily of intensely felt exchanges between characters, Biers’ movie is especially fond of close-ups of eyes—pained, confused, beseeching. Their very frequency detracts from their effectiveness, however, highlighting as well the film’s tendency to overstate. Jacob and Helene bear specific burdens (each making separate and not quite complete amends), Anna must eventually face consequences of her own naïveté (no matter how charming that naïveté may be), and Jørgen, so used to getting his own way, will confront situations over which he has no control. Chronically the movie’s least sympathetic personality, by turns bullying and condescending, he is allotted a couple of moments with his kids that suggest he is, with them, genuinely affectionate, if not precisely generous.
Helene, caught like Jacob between lives, spends much of the film trying to explicate choices that now look only wrong. Poised and self-contained, Helene looks used to the status associated with Jørgen’s money, she’s also plainly devoted to Anna and her much younger white-blond twin boys. Her relationship with her husband is more uneven, as he appears possessed of an increasingly explosive temper. Indeed, the film makes excessively visible her own expanding sense of restraint, as nearly every wall in their massive home is adorned with stuffed animal heads.
Try as he might not to feel likewise “collected,” Jacob eventually faces compromises he hasn’t planned for. After the Wedding‘s most insightful and most manipulative moment comes when Jacob invites Pramod to join him in his new life back in Europe, leaving behind the life he has known. The boy’s answer leads to a shot revealing Jacob’s own limits of vision and imagination. He watches Pramod play football with his friends and fellow orphans out in the courtyard, a lovely, poignant image obstructed by the window grate.