Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, The Wedding Guest excels in intimately exploring characters within a high-stakes situation. Dev Patel and Radhika Apte give fantastic performances and, while the thrills are few and far between, the film is rather unique because it centers the characters and frees the actors up to sit with them and their feelings rather than relying only on the intensity of the thrills.
The story follows the mysterious Jay (Dev Patel)–though his name is never actually revealed in the film until later–through the London airport all the way to Pakistan, where he then buys two cars, two guns, and an assortment of things like zip ties and duct tape. Contrary to the title, Jay isn’t a wedding guest; he’s there to kidnap the bride, Samira (Radhika Apte) and bring her to her boyfriend Deepesh (Jim Sarbh). He manages to do that without much difficulty. That is, until the guard at the gate gets involved and that’s when things begin to get a little more desperate as the two are caught in the middle of an unraveling situation.
The film is a rollercoaster ride of changing events and emotional turmoil. While The Wedding Guest falters in being a full-fledged thriller, with the momentum falling post-kidnapping, the film is rather intimate in its storytelling. Jay and Samira are relative strangers. They share no history and the status of their relationship evolves along with them throughout the film. They’re also in a unique situation, one that draws them closer together by circumstance. They aren’t initially attracted to each other (that comes later), but as their predicament gets more complicated, they’re faced with making decisions that benefit the both of them and must learn to trust each other in the wake of unexpected changes.
The Wedding Guest creates a lot of space for characters to stretch and grow and it’s within this space that Dev Patel showcases his range as an actor. His character, who is introduced as a self-assured hired gun, had never been to Pakistan or India before, despite his ethnicity. It’s an intriguing space to be in because he’s questioned about not speaking the language, a question sometimes leveled at first generation immigrants, though it’s never an accusation in the film. Jay moves through each country with relative ease, however, never drawing much attention to himself. Patel’s performance is full of nuance. His confidence never completely crumbles, but the walls guarding his heart, which grants him detachment from the situation, slowly start to come down. This is exceptionally conveyed through the physical and mental distance he keeps from Samira. As their journey forces them to become reluctant partners, Jay hesitantly, but ultimately, seeks to look after her in his own way while others have shown they could care less about her choice in the matter. Patel’s emotive eyes express the more complicated feelings he has as Jay struggles to get a grip on a seemingly failed job.
Radhika Apte is a revelation as Samira. Primarily a Bollywood and stage actress, I admit to never having seen her work before this, but she’s fantastic. She’s able to match Patel in their scenes together and provides insight into a woman who’s revealed to be actively aware of why she is kidnapped, while rising to the task of equal partnership with Jay. She allows Jay room to become comfortable with vulnerability, while also being vulnerable herself. She’s open, but can be just as distant as he is. Apte and Patel simply carry the movie with the power of their performances and chemistry, often using the silence in their scenes to convey more than words can.
Thankfully, Winterbottom doesn’t fall into the pattern of using either country as a way to make them inferior to England. The film centers two characters of South Asian descent and India and Pakistan as backdrops for their journey. That usually isn’t the case with movies set in other countries, where white characters get to be central to the narrative. There’s nothing demeaning or glamorized about their portrayal and, while the characters don’t interact too much with locals, the countries provide a great setting and help to elevate the film.
The Wedding Guest is more of a character study than a thriller, however. It’s the one major downside. The first few scenes of Patel preparing for the kidnapping, assessing his surroundings, and executing the kidnapping are the most intense scenes in the film. They’re superbly executed, but admittedly short-lived. While the thrills diminish afterward, they’re still there, though not as intense. Still, this allows the film to be more than a simple thriller. Winterbottom’s choice to focus more on the exploration of characters and their responses to situations is highly unusual for films in this genre, but welcome nevertheless.