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After the Wedding

It seems that I've missed Mads Mikkelsen's films so far. I didn't, for example, see Casino Royale, in which, I believes, he plays the archvillain. Well, I've seen him now. In Susanne Bier's Efter brylluppet (After the wedding), his face is haunted in a way that recalls Max von Sydow's, in The Seventh Seal. The three-quarter contour of his brow and cheekbone are reminiscent of an odalisque's curvature, and his mouth is as sculpted as a Bernini bust. Overall, he looks as though he has just put down his prayerbook and stepped out of a Memling or a van Eyck.

He happens also to be the opposite, body-type-wise, of Rolf Lassgård, the portly and somewhat florid actor who plays Jørgen, the self-made billionaire who, it emerges, has orchestrated the proceedings. Learning that he is about to die, Jørgen reaches into his wife's past to track down the father of her daughter, whom he has loved as if she were his own. Jacob (Mr Mikkelsen), the man in question, is unaware that his old girlfriend ever had a baby. They were bohemians in India together, long ago; he stayed, she came home. He not only stayed but put his life together, growing up from a drug-addled slacker to the backbone of an orphanage in Mumbai. This is where we find him at the beginning of the film. He has no intention of returning to Denmark, but is forced to make the trip in order to apply for much-needed funding from an interesting benefactor - who is, of course, Jørgen.

In his Copenhagen office, Jørgen does not give Jacob the kind of reception that he would like; he is in no hurry to make a decision, and he's insistent that Jacob come to his daughter's wedding, over the weekend, at Jørgen's house in the country. When Jacob walks into the church, Jørgen's wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) can't take her eyes off of him, and you know that these two have a past long before it spills into the dialogue. Ms Bier tells an amazing amount of her story in purely visual terms; in her world it's clearly important to pay more attention to what people do than to what they say. Ms Knudsen has a lovely face that's interestingly at odds with her earthy, assertive voice. (She is very much a somewhat less pointed Zoe Wanamaker.)

Because Rolf claims (not very convincingly) that he didn't know that Jacob was that Jacob, there's an understandable frisson: will the old lovers re-unite behind his back? Not bloody likely! I don't think that I've ever seen a movie in which two former lovers have so completely moved on; no sparks fly between Jacob and Helene. Helene adores her husband, and she doesn't know about the new, improved Jacob. It takes her quite a while to stop expecting him to be a cad. For his part, Jacob is wholly preoccupied by his newfound paternity. He's utterly gobsmacked at first; it seems possible that he won't hug his little Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), whose marriage to an opportunist employee of her father's disintegrates almost at once, rocked by Jacob's appearance on the scene.

Jørgen's robust habit of success, meanwhile, has collided with a terminal diagnosis, and Mr Lassgård brilliantly explores the confusion beneath his bluster. Jørgen is a genuinely kind man who means well, but playing God - as Jacob rightly accuses him of doing - is not something that he does very gracefully. (If I had one problem with After the Wedding, it's that Mr Lassgård is in blooming health.) He's used to having his way and very impatient with resistance. When he conditions his gift to Jacob's orphanage upon Jacob's permanent return to Denmark, he very nearly undoes all his good work.

The past that Jacob and Helene had together in India remains obscure, but the score never lets us forget it. When the movie ends where it began, we suspect that Jacob, who is paying a quick visit to the orphanage, will never leave India completely behind (as Helene has had no trouble doing). The last scene is very sweet, but it is not played conventionally. Jacob ask his favorite boy, Pramod. if he would like to come back to Denmark to live with him. Pramod thinks about it for a moment, then declines. Thanks to Jacob's sacrifice, the orphanage is doing very well, and the boy feels quite secure there. He is wise beyond his years, and, unlike Jacob, he knows home when he sees it. (March 2007)

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