Like the proverbial after-school special, the Lifetime Original Movie is an institution that is summarily dismissed by us snoots in the film-critic intelligentsia. Never mind that most of us have never actually sat through one: to tarnish a major motion picture with a comparison to the network proffering weepies and you-go-girl triumphalism is to deem it unserious and inconsequential.
This is unfair — in an alternate universe, certain celebrated titles by Max Ophuls and Douglas Sirk could have been produced a women’s network. But in the dozen-plus years I’ve been reviewing movies professionally, I’ve been as guilty as the next writer of trotting out Lifetime as convenient shorthand for intellectually insufficient women’s pictures.
All of that said, I have little doubt that, with its themes of maternity and mortality, writer-director Bart Freundlich’s After the Wedding would have been catnip to Lifetime executives. This is a women’s picture — more so than its foreign-language source material, Susanne Bier’s superior, Oscar-nominated 2006 Danish drama of the same name — but it’s the movie’s reflections on a world divided by income and opportunity, not gender, that most resonate.
Michelle Williams plays Isabel, an American who has been living in, and running, an orphanage in India for the past 20 years. When she discovers that Theresa Young (Julianne Moore), a multimillionaire entrepreneur in New York, is interested in a potentially sizable donation to her cause, Isabel begrudgingly flies to the States to seal the deal.
Isabel — selfless, monastic, long accustomed to a life unshackled from materialism — is aghast at the luxury penthouse accommodations Theresa has secured for her. And when she meets Moore’s media magnate, she can barely conceal her disgust at the world of pantsuits and skyscraping offices. Theresa is equally sheltered in her own bubble of moneyed privilege, and cannot imagine dwelling among the hoi polloi. “It’s so clear today you can see New Jersey,” she comments, when she meets Isabel in her capacious, upper-floor executive suite, quickly adding, “I don’t know why you’d want to.”
The disparity between First World comfort and Third World need fills the spaces between their interactions, and Freundlich’s script occasionally underlines it for us, as when Isabel, explaining the rampant cases of child prostitution and malnutrition in India, is interrupted by Theresa’s assistant, bearing urgent news of a potential shortage of lobster risotto at tomorrow’s wedding.
Ah yes, the wedding: Theresa’s daughter Grace (Abby Quinn), too young to know any better in Theresa’s eyes, will tie the knot with Frank (Will Chase), an obsequious employee at her company. Nonetheless, no expense has been spared, and no decision about Theresa’s philanthropy will be decided until after the wedding. Won’t Isabel come to the ceremony?
Isabel, anxious to fly back to Kolkata in time for the birthday of her favorite child and de facto son at the orphanage, has barely agreed to attend before an elegant dress is delivered to her hotel, courtesy of Theresa. In an act of unsubtle defiance, Isabel wears what she brought instead. Arriving late, and cloaked in a red cover-up, she more resembles a specter than a guest, haunting the perimeter of the event, declining every drink offer, exchanging unenthusiastic pleasantries, and counting the moments until she can remove her heels—until she locks eyes with Theresa’s husband, a fine artist named Oscar (Billy Crudup), and her long-buried past simmers to the surface.
The rest of After the Wedding is a spoiler minefield, with at least two revelations that qualify as monumental. To Freundlich’s credit, both are effectively surprising. Like any good twist, the second is unexpected in the moment, yet in hindsight feels inevitable.
Which isn’t to say these developments are particularly gratifying. They are also a bit rote, a bit maudlin, a bit, well, Lifetime, or at least what I assume airs on that exotic place in a galaxy far, far away from my remote-control presets.
What lifts the film above its script is the quality of the performances, particularly from Moore and Williams. The latter is always on guard, and rightly skeptical of her potential benefactor’s outreach; the former is used to being on top and unquestioned, exerting her power and influence in ways both obvious and nuanced.
Balanced by expertly timed pauses and hidden meanings, their interactions are a tense subterranean dance where the most interesting details dwell underneath the screenplay’s increasingly tidy formalities.
Just as there is no sin in wealth, there is no inherent saintliness in vows of poverty. And these smart, calculated actors have created characters that reside, like all of us, in smudges of gray.
AFTER THE WEDDING. Director: Bart Freundlich; Cast: Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn, Will Chase; Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Today at Living Room Theaters at FAU and Shadowood Square, both in Boca Raton; AMC Aventura 24 in Aventura; Tower Theater in Miami, and South Beach 18 in Miami Beach.