It’s a while before we learn anything, even a name, about the title character in “The Wedding Guest.” Played by Dev Patel, who delivers an unexpectedly stoic — yet predictably appealing — performance, he is a man of deep professionalism and equally deep mystery.
Jay, as we eventually come to know him, has multiple passports, each of which uses a different name and all of which he carefully packs in his luggage as he prepares to fly from England to Pakistan. Upon his arrival there, he embarks on a road trip, ultimately ending up in the small town of Younganabad, one of many stops in this picturesque tour of the subcontinent.
But this is no travelogue. Nor is it, as its title might imply, a romantic-comedy.
On his way to Younganabad, Jay picks up a couple of guns, some heavy-duty duct tape and multiple rental cars, presumably to use in a getaway of some sort. He abducts a bride-to-be, Samira (Radhika Apte) at gunpoint from her well-to-do family’s compound on the eve of her wedding. It is not quite as efficient an operation as Jay expects: An armed guard is killed trying to stop him.
Then things get weird — and a lot more interesting.
Jay, it turns out, has been hired by Samira’s lover, Deepesh (Jim Sarbh), to save her from an arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t want. What happens between the kidnapping and the reunion of Deepesh and Samira — and even after that reunion — is a satisfyingly unpredictable meditation on female agency in a culture in which women are too often treated as a man’s possessions.
Does Samira want to go back to her shotgun wedding, Jay asks, or to be delivered to Deepesh? “It’s up to you,” he says.
“No, it isn’t,” Samira shoots back. “That’s the point.”
Writer/director Michael Winterbottom (“The Trip to Spain”) is a shape-shifting filmmaker, and he continues that mutable pattern here, giving Patel (“Lion”) the kind of role we’re not used to seeing him in. Jay is not exactly a hero, although he has a kind of honor and perverse honesty. (“Can I trust you?” Samira asks him. “No,” he tells her.)
The film belongs just as much to Apte, (best known in her native India for her stage work) whose complex, contradictory character makes a great case for the argument that the film should have been named “The Bride.” It’s as much her story as his.
A lesser storyteller would have brought Jay and Samira together, pursuing the love-on-the-lam narrative. And for a while, this looks as though that’s where it’s going.
But then — well, saying more would spoil the pleasure of the film, which surprises, in small ways, at every turn. Samira, like Jay, is no saint. Deepesh calls her a “snake” at one point, but he misses the point. She’s not treacherous because she defies his — and our — expectations. She’s simply being human.