Dev Patel is having a moment. The Anglo-Indian actor, who stars in two new movies out this month, is quietly polishing his craft and his reputation with each new role. From the teenage hero of Slumdog Millionaire to the eager-to-please young proprietor of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to the adopted orphan searching for his roots in last year’s Oscar-nominated Lion, he’s proving himself equal to each new challenge.
Case in point: Patel’s solid, commanding turn in The Wedding Guest. Beneath this misleadingly benign title, filmmaker Michael Winterbottom fashions a thriller of skullduggery and deceit that stretches across the churning urban streets and vast, sun-baked rural landscapes of Pakistan and India. Through it all strides Patel’s mysterious protagonist, a soldier of fortune who finds himself on the wrong end of an increasingly bad deal.
Patel’s character Jay could only be considered a “hero” in the Sergio Leone sense—a solitary man with no name (“Jay,” of course, is an alias), who nevertheless sticks to an inner moral code if circumstances push him far enough. We know they will from the very first scene, when English-speaking Jay lands in Pakistan, rents a car, buys two guns, and hits the road.
Soon, he has slipped past an armed guard into a posh residence in the middle of the night and abducted a terrified young woman, Samira (Radhika Apte), on the eve of her wedding. Every action he takes is completely professional—when the first of many setbacks occurs, he even gives her the choice of going home to her family or staying with him one more day to follow an alternate plan. “I don’t want to be married,” she tells him.
All sorts of questions arise. Clearly, Jay and Samira don’t know each other, so who hired him, and why? Could Samira herself have had anything to do with helping arrange her own “escape?” Do they dare to trust each other?
The movie is like a travelogue of Pakistan and India. City streets throng with people hustling along on foot, bicycles or motorbikes, street vendors crying their wares, dilapidated cars and buses, pop-up market stalls, and animals of every description. The vastness of it all becomes a character in itself—the perfect place, as Samira observes, for a person to get lost forever.
Unfortunately, Winterbottom is not as adept at exploring the inner terrain of his characters. We never learn any more about Jay than we see in those first few scenes. He’s an archetype of the dangerous man with no past. Patel is skilled enough to convey checked emotions roiling beneath his stony surface; profound events affect him, but Winterbottom never gives him a chance to express them. He’s just as much a mystery at the film’s end as he was at the beginning.
Similarly, Samira is glad enough to be liberated from an arranged marriage in a country from which she emigrated at age 12. But that’s all we find out about her—not her relationship to her parents, her family or her betrothed, nor what it means to her personally to risk everything to be free of them. It’s as if Winterbottom sketched in his characters and premise, and then started filming before he’d properly developed them.
Still, Patel’s uncompromising presence gives the movie its backbone. It’s too bad he wasn’t given more of a part to play.
THE WEDDING GUEST
**1/2 (out of four)
With Dev Patel and Radhika Apte. Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom. An IFC Films release. Rated R. 97 minutes.