‘After the Wedding’ Film Review: Julianne Moore Remake Swaps Genders, Finds a Reason to Exist

With the help of Moore, Michelle Williams and Billy Crudup, director Bart Freundlich offers a new take on a 2006 Susanne Bier drama

The question that looms over every attempt to remake an existing film is a simple one: “What’s the point?”

If a film is good enough to inspire a remake, after all, doesn’t that mean it exists quite nicely on its own, and doesn’t need somebody else trying to do it all over again?

And if the point of the new version is to change things about the original, don’t you run the risk of losing some of the elements that made the first film special?

Director Bart Freundlich, whose remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 drama “After the Wedding” was the first film to screen on the opening night of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, clearly knows and has thought about those questions.

“Susanne made such a beautiful film,” he said in the Q&A that followed the simultaneous premiere screenings in the Eccles and Ray Theaters, “and I couldn’t see any reason to remake it unless there was a reinvention.”

His reinvention is a simple one, but one with powerful reverberations. In the original, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Mads Mikkelsen plays a Danish man who has moved to India to run a struggling orphanage; he’s summoned back to Denmark by a wealthy potential donor, but the plot thickens with family secrets and ulterior motives that shouldn’t be revealed in much detail. Suffice it to say that it’s a triangle of sorts between Mikkelsen, Rolf Lassgard as the rich man and Sidse Babett Knudsen as his wife, with abundant complications.

When Freundlich started thinking about a remake, he said his wife, Julianne Moore, was interested in playing one role, the rich man played by Rolf Lassgard in the original. That change flipped the triangle to two women (Moore and Michelle Williams) and one man (Billy Crudup) – and again for reasons that shouldn’t be spelled out, the gender swap turns “After the Wedding” on its head in many ways.

For Moore, this marks the second festival in less than five month in which she’s appeared in an English-language remake of a foreign-language film. In September, she was in Toronto for the premiere of “Gloria Bell,” Sebastian Lelio’s almost scene-for-scene remake of his 2013 film, with Moore ably stepping into the shoes of the gifted Chilean actress Paulina Garcia.

Freundlich obviously alters “After the Wedding” more than Lelio did to “Gloria” but interestingly, that gender swap is really the only major change, albeit a change that lets the familiar beats play out in a way that feels fresh.

Like Bier’s film, Freundlich’s is quiet and lovely for much of its running time, aided by Mychael Danna’s gentle score and by the understated grace that Williams brings to the role of the seemingly saintly orphanage worker with a few dark secrets of her own.

Moore’s character is a different story, a tightly-wound and hard-charging entrepreneur who can play at being sweet in between screaming fits at her long-suffering assistant.

For the most part, though, the action unfolds slowly and languidly, until suddenly it doesn’t. First we get real fireworks, then we get acting fireworks – and boy are Moore, Williams and Crudup good at delivering those — and then Freundlich struggles to keep things from lurching into melodrama.

He doesn’t always succeed, but on the whole “After the Wedding” is a touching journey through a world where even those with the best intentions leave some wreckage behind, and where forward motion only comes with hard looks into the past.

Its Sundance premiere came more than 20 years after Freundlich first appeared at the festival with his debut film, the 1997 drama “The Myth of Fingerprints.” His new film seems destined to be his best-received film since that one, and to be embraced as the rare remake that honors the original but also finds its own reason for existing.