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An A without an R

Michelle Williams (left) and Julianne Moore (Sundance Institute)

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An A without an R

After the Wedding is a well-crafted, A-list drama without the expected sex scenes

It’s strange when you realize just how much the ever-increasing levels of sex, violence, and ugliness in modern entertainment have altered our experience of watching adult-targeted dramas. Take, for instance, the new indie, After the Wedding

A gender-reversed version of a 2006 Danish film, it weaves an intriguing mystery around two powerful, dynamic women, each alpha females of a sort, though in different spheres. 

Isobel (Michelle Williams) runs an orphanage in India. In a certain respect, she’s exactly what we picture when we imagine people who give their lives serving in impoverished regions. Her flowing palazzo pants, low-maintenance locks, and zen meditation practices give off a distinct air of Earth Mama. Yet she’s so much more than the cliché, chatting up corporate boards for “suitcases of money” and roaring, “I’m not here to teach you compassion!” like a mother bear when arrogant donors try to come between her and her children. Which is exactly what she thinks wealthy Theresa (Julianne Moore) is doing after she summons Isobel to New York and strong-arms her into staying until she’s ready to decide how much funding she wants to give Isobel’s charity.

Theresa, too, is no easy caricature. Her high-powered, demanding professional life doesn’t stop her from being a loving, engaged mom. Sure, she drives brutal bargains and snaps at her assistant, but she also reads her children bedtime stories, worries her sons are playing violent video games, and gets teary thinking about her beautiful daughter Grace’s upcoming marriage.

Still, Theresa isn’t the type to do anything without a purpose, especially a seemingly impulsive act like inviting Isobel to Grace’s wedding. When Isobel arrives and realizes she knows Theresa’s husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup), a renowned sculptor, we start to suspect what it might be, though the knowing makes the revelation no less riveting. The two women circle one another, each subtly trying to indict the other with suggestions that their life choices make them the more ideal version of womanhood.

I won’t spoil the mystery, except to say that as it unspools, creating gut-wrenching emotional stakes for all the characters, After the Wedding is as surprising as much for what isn’t there as for what is. Namely, no sex scenes, save Oscar sweetly romancing his wife when he finds her in the bathtub (no nudity or anything inappropriate is shown). 

So why did I keep steeling myself to see them? Because After the Wedding is clearly meant to be a prestige drama. It stars two critically acclaimed actresses at the top of their game. It centers on people with cultured, urban lives. It depicts two women grappling with a charged, unspoken rivalry. And these days, an A-list release like that—about marriage, money, and ambition—without significant R content is almost unheard of. If the film’s PG-13 rating didn’t also come with a fair amount of profanity, it would be quite the unicorn indeed.

Along with being brilliantly acted, well-paced, and intelligently crafted, After the Wedding is the rare film that explores tricky topics like class differences and femininity without feeling like it’s pandering. At first it seems the filmmakers want us to envy and resent Theresa’s 1 percenter status (playing with those conditioned expectations again!). But as we come to know her better, we remember that God blesses some with the ability to make wealth. And that wealth creates jobs and funds charities.

Further, we see a depiction of unplanned pregnancy where the only choice is how best to give the child life. “I just knew I couldn’t take care of you,” one character says of her choice not to be a mother, “and bringing you into the world was the best that I could do.” The frequent bad language notwithstanding, those are expectations upended in the most wonderful way.