Guest of Honour, 2019.
Directed by Atom Egoyan.
Starring David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson, Alexandre Bourgeois, Rossif Sutherland, Arsinée Khanjian and Sochi Fried.
A restaurant inspector investigates the alleged abuse of power that led to his daughter being imprisoned for inappropriate behaviour.
Some directors are a reliable name on the poster for a movie. They allow audiences to know roughly what they’re in for and whether they’re going to be living in the highbrow or the lowbrow for the next few hours. That is not true of the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, whose often austere, chilly movies can exist in a multitude of genres and tones, while wildly differing in quality. His latest – non-linear family melodrama Guest of Honour – is the very definition of a mixed bag.
Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) is preparing to bury her recently deceased father, recounting their relationship to Father Greg (Luke Wilson). In flashback, we see her father – David Thewlis’ restaurant health inspector Jim – going about his business, including visiting Veronica in prison, where she has been placed as a result of an allegedly inappropriate relationship with one of her music students (Alexandre Bourgeois) during a concert trip. She seems to want to be in prison, but why?
Egoyan poses a lot of questions in Guest of Honour, with his non-linear script piecing together multiple timelines and a selection of increasingly ludicrous plot elements. He deserves credit for maintaining an admirable coherence and pace given the frequent temporal left-turns the story takes, anchored by Thewlis’s layered performance as a man whose life has been shaped by a tailspin of tragedy. He’s not a likeable presence – a stickler for hygiene rules, but willing to bend them if it suits his own agenda.
One of the problems with Guest of Honour is that the characters’ actions don’t appear to stack up to any logical or moral framework. They’re simply tugged hither and thither by the necessary machinations of Egoyan’s overwrought plot, which lurches between melodramatic flourishes until any sense of credibility has been completely ruptured. Just one of the movie’s more excessive delves into soapland might have been forgivable, but Egoyan takes what is very much an “in for a penny, in for a pound” approach.
With that said, though, Thewlis and co-lead Oliveira are both very watchable and the movie speeds along at enough of a clip that it would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand. There’s plenty to enjoy about Egoyan’s storytelling, even as it repeatedly stretches the boundaries of credibility. Guest of Honour is a trashy melodrama masquerading as a tricksy, artistically minded slice of highbrow entertainment. There’s a tension there that could’ve been interesting, but is never meaningfully explored.
Indeed, there’s potential too in the fact that there are multiple narrators at play in the story, with Thewlis-led flashbacks filling in the gaps in Oliveira’s account. Late in the day developments reveal that neither person was in possession of all of the facts, but the tension between their inconsistent accounts never intrudes into the story in the way that it could’ve done in order to really illustrate the gulf in understanding between these two family members.
This is, ultimately, a film about the fragility of reputation and interpretation that isn’t really interested in its own themes. Guest of Honour benefits from a set of strong performances – most notably veteran character actor Thewlis in a rare, but welcome, lead role – and an intriguing, unconvential structure. However, it’s incapable of converting all of those constituent parts into a movie with enough bite to overcome the soapy hurdles of its Achilles Heel script.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.