Just how far would you travel to disrupt a wedding? Michael Winterbottom’s latest feature sees British-Indian Jay, played by Dev Patel, travel to Pakistan for upcoming nuptials. It isn’t immediately clear who Jay is, or how he has come to be an invitee. But long before he gets to the wedding, before he even buys two guns and plenty of duct tape en route, Patel’s grim, determined demeanour gives him away. This is one guest whose intentions are not to celebrate.
Silently manoeuvring through the bridal house, Jay succeeds in a strategic capture of the bride, Samira, taking her hostage before hitting the road to unite her with her lover. Patel plays up Jay’s inner conflict, never quite making it clear whether it is greed, desperation or even desire that drives him. Once again, Patel proves himself to be an actor deserving of worthier material, delivering each instruction with an unwavering façade of confidence, masking his uncertainty and fear. There is little dialogue unless expositional, allowing Jay to stride purposefully through steps of his plan towards the paycheck he covets. Following him doing so, Giles Nuttgens’ camera is tame, sticking closely to the protagonist. Indian and Pakistani land and cityscapes blur, hardly acknowledged and even more rarely appreciated.
Radhika Apte’s Samira is a pivotal character in terms of the film’s development after its first act. As she graduates from silent hostage to co-conspirator, Samira adopts shades of femme fatale, without time to make this transition delicious. Apte’s defiance drives a believable performance, but lacks the energy or likeability to score empathy. Described as impulsive and even crazy at one point, Samira’s true potential is never explored, frustratingly held back in favour of predictability.
Despite the unmistakeable John Le Carre-esque tone, the film never takes a sudden turn that might be expected of the genre. Winterbottom is content to let the story plod along, dissecting the burgeoning relationship between the two fugitives. Missing the opportunity for the playful criminal-hostage dynamic of films like Out of Sight or even From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Winterbottom chooses instead to keep a serious tone, drying out moments that could have approached tenderness. When an unavoidable power struggle develops, it is tense, but never quite reaches thrilling heights, and the film lacks a third act bite. With a sort of smug aura of relief, Winterbottom settles for inevitability in the end.
What is truly disappointing about The Wedding Guest is that it wastes so many opportunities to excel. Within the story there are obvious chances for the tension to mount – deaths that never arouse a police reaction, shady figures that appear and fade away without fanfare. With an absence of any real stakes, it is a shame to see these prospective additives – openings to further danger or intrigue – fall by the side of the arid road. It represents a step towards comfort for Winterbottom, whose oeuvre is largely made up of films with a political agenda. Gone are the naturalistic attempts at improvised dialogue, the handheld and gritty camerawork. Here the aesthetic is smooth, professional and yet unadventurous – safe. In spite of Patel’s strong performance, an unremarkable script and lazy direction let The Wedding Guest languish, never going out of its way to impress or thrill.
Thriller | UK, 2019 | 15 | Glasgow Film Festival | Park Circus | Release Date UK TBC | Dir. Michael Winterbottom | Dev Patel, Radhika Apte, Jim Sarbh