Producers: Simone Urdi, Jennifer Weiss and Atom Egoyan Director: Atom Egoyan Screenplay: Atom Egoyan Cast: David Thewlis, Layla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson, Rossif Sutherland, Alexandre Bourgeois, Arsinée Khanjian, Gage Munroe, Sochi Fried, Tennille Read, John Bourgeois, Isabelle Franca and Alexander Marsh Distributor: Kino Marquee
The finest of Atom Egoyan’s films—“The Adjuster,” “Exotica,” “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Felicia’s Journey”—undoubtedly date from early in his career in the nineties. But though his output since then has been highly variable, with intriguing but flawed entries (“Ararat,” “Adoration,” “Remember”) alternating with outright misfires (“Where the Truth Lies” “Devil’s Knot,” “The Captive”), even at his worst the Armenian-Canadian filmmaker exhibits ambition, intelligence and cinematic skill.
So while his latest can be criticized for its odd structure and sometimes risible over-seriousness, its technical elegance and obvious commitment to grappling with the complexities of human motivation make it engrossing, if ultimately unsatisfying.
The titular character of “Guest of Honour” is Jim (David Thewlis), an ultra- fastidious health inspector who’s a stickler for the rules but occasionally uses his authority for personal ends. As the film begins, he’s recently deceased, and his beautiful daughter Veronica (Layla De Oliveira) is meeting with Father Greg (Luke Wilson) to discuss his funeral. The priest discusses her father with Veronica in order to prepare his remarks, since he didn’t know Jim, although later on we’ll learn that he had met him once.
From this point the narrative shifts back and forth in time. The most distant scenes are from seventeen years earlier, when eight-year old Veronica (Isabelle Franca) was living happily with her father, who was then a restaurateur, and her mother Roseangela (Tenille Read). A number of things happen in this stream. Jim presents Veronica with a pet—a white rabbit she names Benjamin. He also takes her for her first piano lesson with Alicia (Sochi Fried), whose son Walter (Alexander Marsh)—an accomplished performer on musical glasses—instantly takes a shine to her. Unfortunately, there is also a dark aspect to the timeline, as Roseangela falls ill with cancer and young Veronica suspects that her father has become involved with Alicia.
More recently, Veronica had become a high school music teacher, and led a small orchestra in which handsome Clive (Alexandre Bourgeois) played timpani. The group was on tour, travelling on a bus driven by scruffy Mike (Rossif Sutherland), when an incident occurred that led her to be charged with indecency with a minor. She pled guilty and was imprisoned; and when Jim tried to persuade her to apply for early release, she refused.
He was certain that his daughter was innocent, however, and in the course of his rounds as inspector—shown in extended sequences—he decided to bend the rules he usually enforced so rigidly to discover, at a restaurant run by Clive’s uncle, the reasons behind her decision to embrace incarceration. That leads to an episode at an Armenian restaurant owned by Anna (Arsinée Khanjian) where Jim, who’d almost closed the place down for infractions, becomes the “guest of honour” at a private function and drunkenly discloses what he has learned—leading to legal difficulties of his own.
It turns out that Veronica’s desire for punishment revolved around incidents involving Alicia and the teenaged Walter (Gage Munroe), who was her boyfriend in high school, over which she has harbored both guilt and hostility toward Jim, though it won’t be until her conversation with Father Greg that her motives are fully revealed. The priest, in turn, informs Veronica of something he knows concerning Jim and Alicia about which she was unaware, tying up the strands of the complicated narrative.
The back-and-forth structure Egoyan has imposed on “Guest of Honour” will antagonize some viewers, and the lapidary pace he and editor Susan Shipton favor throughout will frustrate them as well, particularly in the sequences recording Jim’s scrupulous attention to detail as he scours kitchens, dining rooms and lavatories searching for matters that need correction. But the more patient may appreciate the opportunity the deliberation gives to the actors to convey the emotions simmering beneath the surface of their characters. That applies especially to Thewlis, who gives a performance remarkable for its precision and refinement (even if he can’t entirely pull off the effusive revelatory speech he must deliver toward the close), but to a lesser extent to De Oliveira and Wilson.
It also allows one to admire the craft contributions of production designer Phillip Barker and cinematographer Paul Sarossy, who capture the ambience of the varied times and places expertly, though the score by Mychael Danna is rather more obvious in its employment of ethnic cliché to accompany Jim’s visits to different eating establishments.
The other element of the picture that may well be taken to task, and even elicit some chortles, is the rabbit motif. There’s the thread involving Benjamin, whom Jim cares for scrupulously after Veronica is sent away, serving presumably as a symbol of a relationship that persists even in the face of inexplicable tragedy, but of other things as well that one might have difficulty trying to sort out. When the animal becomes the focus of Jim’s last-act coming-to-terms-with-himself, however, the episode is presented with a discreet tamping down of the melodramatics that has the opposite of the intended effect. actually accentuating its overwrought nature. Stray bits of business about rabbits’ feet and ears (the latter a gastronomic delicacy in some circles, it appears), along with speculations about rabbits communing with the spirits of the underworld, might also raise some snorts of amusement.
Egoyan and Thewlis nonetheless manage to overcome even such narrative miscalculations to deliver a film that, while opaquely structured and less profound than it strives to be, at least aims to dramatize the vagaries of memory, guilt and self-destruction through the prism of a single frayed father-daughter relationship. The result is a flawed but still fascinating near-miss from a filmmaker whose work—good, bad or indifferent—is always worth attending to.