There are two big reasons to watch The Wedding Guest. One is the flawless cinematography by Giles Nuttgens (Hell Or High Water), who creates a beautifully composed, and understated palette that complements the economical directing style of Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, 24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart). The other is Dev Patel. Always charismatic, Patel restrains his characteristic warmth and passion to bring us Jay, a withheld, taciturn British Muslim man-on-a-mission. He is full of banked up emotion that he doesn’t express, hooking us in as he prepares for a mysterious journey in the opening scenes of the film.
Winterbottom, known for his varied and intelligent work, has based his story on a favourite genre of his, the road movie, with a broader remit to explore characters brought together in intense, emotional relationships. From early films like Go Now (1994), about an MS sufferer and his lover, to Welcome To Sarajevo (1997), depicting the experiences of a group of journalists in war-torn Sarajevo, Winterbottom has gained critical acclaim for working with confronting material. The Wedding Guest is engagingly tense, with surprising, character driven plot twists.
In the set-up scenes, Jay travels from London to Lahore in Pakistan. “Would you like full insurance?” the travel agent asks. Jay’s affirmative answer is loaded with implication. His expression is stoic, but the emotion is palpable as he buys a gun and sets up for target practice. Six minutes into the film, we know that Jay is armed and on a planned mission – but what?
“We don’t really find anything out about his backstory to connect with,” Patel told FilmInk at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, where The Wedding Guest was included as a Special Presentation. “We have to imagine what he is. He’s shuffling around all these paper identities, but in himself, he’s self-contained. We used to hear stories about Pakistani men going back to Baghdad, and you’re going to think that it’s about money (or terrorism); then as the film unfolds, it keeps slightly shifting. And you’re thinking all the time about this character and who he is and why’s he doing what he’s doing, and then it becomes focused around the female character, and looking at what her motives are.”
Jay’s first real interaction with other people is with locals in Lahore, an excellent scene played naturalistically, where Jay, in spite of his Indian appearance, can’t speak Punjabi. In a few moments, we grasp his awkwardness and understand him as a fish out of water, a displaced man. It is through such precisely observed scenes that Winterbottom allows his actors to take us on an unfolding mystery ride. As the story develops, nothing is as you expect. Without giving anything away, there’s a woman (Radhika Apte) who starts off as victim, a third party (Jim Sarbh), who is the instigator, and then, like a kaleidoscope, the picture is shaken, and everyone assumes a different focus.
“The tables can turn very quickly,” says Patel. “You’re trying to figure out who’s on top of the situation, and who’s in charge, and at any moment in time that shifts very delicately with a really slight ‘touch.’ It could be a look, or it could be something physical that happens that changes the power dynamic between the people in the film. That was really interesting to play out.”
Also in Toronto, Winterbottom spoke to FilmInk about the story’s genesis. “I was making a film [documentary] called The Road To Guantanamo (2006), which is about three guys from England who ended up in Guantanamo. And they’d gone recently to Pakistan for a wedding. We went with them, took them back to the village in the Punjab where the third one was actually finally getting married, having been in Guantanamo for a few years. We travelled through Pakistan, and when I was there it just seemed like a great location. It was interesting…these were people who had been born and grew up in Britain, and they didn’t really have any particular connection to their families there [in the Punjab]. And it just seemed like a good location. It’s sort of like a western: strangers come from out of town and arrive at this little one horse town and then what happens from there? So that was the starting point.”
Patel, who was also the film’s producer, spoke about the speed of filming and the rich experience of keeping under the radar while being a visitor in India. “We went on a location scout and within three weeks we’re on a set, and in six weeks we’ve done the movie,” he says. “It was a feat actually. Every time I go back to India, it constantly surprises me. When you go in with a big bulldozer of a film crew, it numbs the experience of what the country actually is. Now that people are starting to recognise me a lot more, it’s hard to witness it. Ironically, I got a better, more authentic version of India shooting a movie with Michael than I have actually traveling there without it because we go undercover into these markets. I’ve got a cap on, and the camera’s hidden, and there are no makeup artists flickering around. There’s no pampering or craft service or anything.”
Patel had to quickly adjust to Winterbottom’s guerrilla brand of filmmaking. “We’re just dropped in to an environment and you either sink or you swim, and Michael will film either,” Patel smiles. “So that was really exciting, and I remember going, ‘He’s documenting us exploring this country. We’re traveling from one part of India to the other, and we’re on a train, and he will film that journey too.’ Me and Radhika had never really worked together before, so we’re trying to figure each other out as human beings also, so that plays into the narrative of the film. So, you’re watching our relationship blossom in real time, as we’re experiencing the city in real time. And that makes it very alive and present.”
“It wasn’t as though we had a big rehearsal period,” Winterbottom adds. “We plotted it all out beforehand. I’m not a big fan of rehearsals anyway, but in this case it’s like two people who don’t know each other at all, then the very lop-sided relationship. Someone’s in control, someone’s being carted around. Their relationship is complicated and changes and shifts, and it’s starting from nothing. We filmed in sequence; we started at page one and ended up on the last page.”
“From my point of view, there was a deliberate choice not to have back stories,” Patel explains. “The idea is that you have to watch and imagine. For me, the only thing that we know about this character is that he doesn’t reveal anything, and that he is keeping himself under control. At the beginning where he’s got his plan, everything works by his plan. Then he digresses and he suddenly has to start improvising. I decided that I don’t want to know about what happened in the past.
“As an actor, I have my little story that I create in my brain when I’m walking the streets, and why my face was in that particular expression. But I don’t want anyone to know that. I want them to put their own experience on that. What would I do if I was in that position? You’re watching a guy that has a plan, and then the rug is pulled from under him, and now he’s having to adapt on his feet.”
It makes for compelling viewing. As Winterbottom says, “The film is a bit of a puzzle. Ideally for every little development of the story, you’re trying to work out what’s happening and the motives for the characters and what’s going to happen next.”
The Wedding Guest will screen at The Sydney Film Festival on June 5 at 6:35pm at Event Cinemas George Street and on June 7 at 6:30pm at The Randwick Ritz. For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website. The Wedding Guest will also screen at The Revelation Film Festival in Perth in July. For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website.