Guest of Honour is an engaging, multilayered drama built around a fascinating central character that nevertheless falls short of what is, admittedly, the unfair expectation that it be a true return to form for writer/director Atom Egoyan. Egoyan, who was born in Cairo but raised in Canada, reached the pinnacle of the art film/mainstream crossover in the mid-1990s with Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), the latter of which was nominated for several Oscars and won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Since then, though, he has struggled to find a consistent artistic voice. His output has been significant, with eight feature films, two feature documentaries, two contributions to omnibus films, three short films, and a made-for-television film over the past 20 years, but it has also been all over the place, with a number of head-scratching choices and some well-intended misfires.
In Guest of Honour, Egoyan has arguably come the closest he has in years to what brought him such acclaim 25 years ago. The first screenplay he has written solo since Adoration (2008), Guest of Honour is told in a series of carefully structured narrative layers taking place at different times that are slowly peeled away so that we don't get a full understanding of what has happened until the very end. This kind of complex narrative design has been one of Egoyan's hallmarks, and he has an intuitive sense of how long to wait to reveal things and in what order. This keeps us keyed into the plot, but unfortunately a lot of the revelations don't quite work, partially because they require characters to behave in ways that stretch credulity.
The film begins with the protagonist, Jim Davis (David Thewlis), having recently died. His adult daughter, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), is meeting with a priest, Father Greg (Luke Wilson), to discuss what will be said in his eulogy. Jim did not attend Father Greg's church, so he wants to get to know more about the man he will be eulogizing. This provides a convenient frame narrative that allows Veronica to try to explain who her father was, which leads to flashbacks, into which are embedded further flashbacks. We learn that Jim was a health inspector who took his profession very seriously, conducting thorough assessments of restaurants both large and small with an intense eye for detail and a relentless adherence to the rules. However, he is not an ogre, and on more than one occasion we see him showing some compassion to those he finds out of compliance, albeit without ever going outside the rules.
We learn that Veronica's mother was sick with cancer when Veronica was a child and that Jim had some kind of relationship with her music teacher (although the exact nature of that relationship is kept vague for a long time). And then there is Veronica's own story, which involves her getting involved in some unseemly business with the students she teachers in a high school orchestra and Mike (Rossif Sutherland), the bus driver who is clearly interested in her, but is a working-class schlub who says all the wrong things and ends up ruining her life out of spite. Some event lands her in prison, and we learn that, even though Jim wants her get out, she feels she belongs there. Understanding her motivations requires further flashbacks, all of which are thoughtfully scattered in such a way that we are tempted to think we've figured things out when actually we haven't. The powerful (and destructive) influence of assumption is a prominent theme in the film, as lives are constantly upended because characters assume they know what has happened, when in fact they haven't.
The best thing about Guest of Honour is Thewlis's performance as Jim, a man who harbors all kinds of guilt, regret, and sadness, but struggles to convey those feelings. He seems to have no friends or family, and the only person he regularly interacts with outside of work is Veronica while she is in prison. Thewlis plays Jim's interpersonal rigidity and formality with just the right dash of internal conflict; his tightly pursed lips and steady eyes are a constant reminder of everything he is holding in, which is why one of the film's worst scenes is when he drunkenly gives a long toast at a gathering to which he was not invited that turns into a kind of interpersonal unloading. Egoyan and his long-time cinematographer Paul Sarossy often frame Thewlis's character alone and isolated in his surroundings (Egoyan also makes good use of a haunting musical score by Mychael Danna, another longtime collaborator). One of the film's most memorable images finds Jim standing by his car along a busy road eating lunch while a factory in the distance belches smoke; it is a perfect distillation of a closed-off man trying to carve out a small space of control in a world that is largely out of his control. As a character study, Guest of Honour is quite fascinating, but the plot points ultimately fail to click together, leaving us with isolated moments of brilliance floating in a film that comes only tantalizingly close to regaining Egoyan's former glory.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Kino Lorber
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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