Sydney FF 2019 Review: THE WEDDING GUEST – by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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With a feature filmmaking career that has spanned almost 25 years, although Michael Winterbottom has had some are undeniable misfires, he has simultaneously illustrated time and time again that when he’s good, he’s very good, from the unapologetically British 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy, Jude and The Trip series, to his more internationally focused projects such as Genova and Welcome to Sarahevo. Although these global experiments have not always succeeded (Trishna – his woeful reimagining of Thomas hardy’s classic novel Tess of D’Urbervilles remains virtually unwatchable), The Wedding Guest adds to both this international strand of Winterbottom’s oeuvre while donating to his experiments with the crime/thriller genre, joining previous projects such as The Face of an Angel and 2010’s controversial The Killer Inside Me.

As great as the pearl-clutching surrounding the unquestioningly shocking depiction of violence against women in the latter was, whatever one might say about The Killer Inside Me, it could never be accused of lacking energy or going for through the motions. Disappointingly, the same cannot be said for The Wedding Guest, a film largely carried on lead actor Dev Patel’s shoulders. As films like the recent Hotel Mumbai indicate, this is not the first time Patel’s remarkable acting chops have had to do much of a film’s heavy lifting.

A shady figure with a collection of fake IDs, Patel plays a man identified only in the credits as “Jay”, an at first ominous, cold, distant character quite unlike any we’ve seen Patel play in a film of this scale before. As the wedding guest of the title, we soon learn Jay’s journey from London to Pakistan with which the film opens is far from an innocent one, tasked as he is with abducting the soon-to-be-married bride Samira (Radhika Apte) and taking her back to Britain to reunite with the man she really loves, Deepesh (Jim Sarbh). It is Deepesh who has hired Jay, but the plan shows early signs of falling apart when Jay strays from their plan and kills a man. Samira and Jay find themselves flung into close proximity as they travel across India to Amristar where they discover Deepesh is not as committed to the plan as Jay assumed.

As always, Patel’s presence alone is enough to maintain an audience’s interest, and The Wedding Guest firmly consolidates his status as one of the finest and most adaptable actors working in mainstream cinema today. Compounded by the genuine on-screen spark between Patel and Apte – who herself puts in a very solid performance as Samira – its hard to locate the performances in the film as the source of its distinctive lack of oomph.

Combined with Giles Nuttgens’s exquisite cinematography and Harry Escott’s generically tame yet sensorially compelling score, The Wedding Guest has all the right pieces there but fails to pull together into quite the finished product the high standards of its individual components suggest. By the time the plot really ignites, it’s almost too late for us to get fully on board the wild ride the premise offered.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.