There was a time when writer/director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) was one of the most interesting filmmakers out of Canada and a talent whose works were worthy of actual anticipation. But for roughly the last 15 years, Egoyan’s films have been uneven at best, outright broken at their worst. Left in limbo since last year’s Venice Film Festival, his latest, Guest of Honour, concerns Jim (David Thewlis), a detail-oriented health inspector who comes into restaurants and looks for signs of poor food storage and preparation in and around kitchens. He’s firm but fair, and as the film opens, he’s just died (not a spoiler).
His grown daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) is handling the funeral arrangements with a priest named Father Greg (Luke Wilson…!?!), and it becomes clear that Greg didn’t really know Jim, even though Jim personally selected this church to have his funeral. Much of the film is told in flashback from Veronica’s point of view, and in getting to know the deceased, Veronica and Father Greg’s conversation becomes Veronica’s much-need confession. A former high school music teacher, she’s only recently gotten out of prison, supposedly for having sex with a 17-year-old student, Clive (Alexandre Bourgeois), who played in the school band she conducted. There’s some debate about whether she actually did do anything illegal, but her guilty conscience about something in her life made her not only plead guilty but ask for the maximum sentence.
The film jumps around in time a bit, as far back as when Veronica was a little girl (played by Isabelle Franca) and her mother was dying of cancer. She was taking piano lessons with a beautiful instructor who Jim may or may not have been sleeping with. At the time, Jim was running his own restaurant, but had to give up on those dreams to spend more time with his dying wife. It was around this time that he became an inspector. The film also shows us the events that transpired leading to Veronica being arrested, some of which involved a school bus driver (Rossif Sutherland), who becomes obsessed with the teacher and her implied closeness to Clive.
As he so often is, Thewlis straddles the line between creepy and pathetic, and that’s a good thing—perhaps the only really good thing in Guest of Honour. He spends a great deal of the present day (before his death, naturally) attempting to clear his daughter’s name but beating himself up for being the kind of parent that may have raised a woman whose reputation and career have effectively been ruined by what she did. But the film is muddled and sometimes confusing with all of the time jumping and the biggest secrets of the plot being revealed too early, leaving the rest of the movie to simply unspool without a whole lot of dramatic tension to support it.
As is the Egoyan way, the film looks beautiful (with cinematography courtesy of Paul Sarossy), and the filmmaker’s wife, the gifted Arsinée Khanjian, shows up late in the film as a restaurant owner who must creatively convince Jim not to shut her establishment down after a minor infraction. But beyond these reliable trademarks, Guest of Honour is a well-meaning and overly complicated mess concerning a fractured father-daughter relationship that may not deserve to be mended. And I certainly didn’t care one way or the other if it was.
The film is available now as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from Your Sofa program. On Tuesday, July 14, at 6pm, the film’s writer/director Atom Egoyan will take part in a Facebook Live Q&A, moderated by the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Director of Programming Barbara Scharres. Register here.
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