After the Wedding: Complex Female Characters

February 14, 2019
Bart Freundlich’s gender swapping remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 classic enjoyed a warm reception when it premiered at Sundance.

Story tension is often based on a power struggle between main characters and the 2006 film After the Wedding does exactly that. Danish writer director Susanne Bier (Bird Box, Brothers) made the stakes very high and very personal for her two male protagonists. In his remake of the film, writer and director Bart Freundlich (Trust the Man, The Myth of Fingerprints) followed suit but with a twist. In his version the two characters are just as powerful, but they are female.

Isabel (Michelle Williams) runs an orphanage in India while Theresa (Julianne Moore) is a media mogul who badly wants Isabel to comply with her plans.

It was this dynamic tension that drew Michelle Williams to take part, as she explained on the press line before the premiere screening at Sundance.

“I was interested in this power struggle between two women who were used to being in control and in charge of their lives,” she said. “But one has a lot of means and one has no means and I wondered how that would play.”

After the Wedding is a passion project for Freundlich and wife, starring actor and co-producer Julianne Moore. They were generous with their time on the press lines and at the post-screening Q & A in Park City where the festival crowds lined up in the snow to pack the seats at Eccles Theatre, and delighted at the film’s warm reception.

“Susanne Bier made this beautiful complex emotional movie,” Freundlich told the audience. “When producer Joel B. Michaels came to me with the idea of a remake, I thought there was no reason to do it unless we found some reinvention. Julianne had seen the movie with me and said, ‘oh I would play that part,’ meaning the character that became Theresa. Then as we got into the idea of switching the male roles for women, I followed the logic and we realised this whole new narrative within the original emotional story. Then I could see a reason to remake it.”

Moore recalls, “the idea in female form was interesting to me because she tries to control everything, then there’s one thing she can’t control. It’s the kind of drama I’d never seen before.”

It’s a treat to see these two actresses at the top of their game and pushing the envelope in exploring the spectrum of emotions that their characters go through. Williams brings a precision and focus to her portrayal of a woman of deep motives and secrets that is quite mesmerising. The characters may engage in power games but, according to Abby Quinn who plays the daughter, it was all camaraderie and support on set.

“They made me feel really at home,” Quinn told FilmInk. “I learned so much just being around them.”

Abby Quinn © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Kobane

Quinn’s role and emotional reactions are particularly vital to the story as she becomes caught in the crossfire between the two protagonists. Something must have worked in the on-set synergy as she carries it out beautifully with a confident, natural presence on screen that is essentially believable.

Apart from the performances, the cinematography is remarkable, from the opening sweeping shots of the peaceful, Eden-like world of the orphanage to a lavish outdoor wedding in America. Freundlich explains how the story themes of life and mortality demanded a strong artistic vision.

“I put a lot in the cinematography and production, and we brought in Julio Macat,” Freundlich says.

Macat has worked with some of the great filmmakers and who teaches lighting in addition to his prolific work on everything from TV series to popular features like Home Alone and recently Life of the Party.

“I wanted to give a sense of how difficult it is to leave this world when it’s so beautiful and rich,” Freundlich adds. “We chose to have a big canvas to enhance the moments of beauty.”

The premise of After the Wedding has such a great dramatic twist that once known, it can’t be forgotten, so it’s a credit to Freundlich that he has made a feature that has enough creative strength to carry a re-telling. When asked about the actual writing and structuring of the story, he pays respect to Bier’s work.

“The original by Susanne was a very strong plot,” he says. “It was a gift for a writer because I could follow the structure and explore what she was trying to say in this or that scene. The structure of the ‘reveals’ is similar, but there were also inherent changes because of the gender swap. It was interesting to look at what really needed to change as opposed to assumptions I may have made based in gender.”

Alex Esola © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Kobane

FilmInk spoke to young actor Alex Esola who plays Theresa’s employee and fiancée to her daughter. He described how this rebalancing of gender roles was refreshing to be part of.

“Bart’s screenplay is such a beautiful remake of the original and because he flipped the gender of the two main characters, we have a set up where it’s men in the support roles for a change. It was especially fascinating to see Billy Crudup playing the supportive partner (as Moore’s character’s loving husband). As a young actor it’s exciting to have these experiences where we get to be part of women’s stories. It’s freeing for everyone. “

With this year’s festival carrying a particularly strong message of diversity and gender parity, After the Wedding found its place by presenting strong complex females, convincingly holding their own.

Main photo: © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo Ryan Kobane

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