Review: GUEST OF HONOUR, Story of Guilt, Childhood Trauma and Vengeance
David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira and Luke Wilson star in the latest drama by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, now streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Harkening back to his former glory days, writer/director Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) makes a comeback of sorts with Guest of Honour, featuring a stellar lead performance by veteran British character actor David Thewlis. The film slowly and seductively unfolds a story of guilt, childhood trauma and vengeance in that unmistakable Egoyan style.
It starts with beautiful Veronica (Laysla de Oliveira) meeting a local priest (Luke Wilson) to arrange for her dad's funeral. She is there to lend him some insights to what kind of man her father was for composing a eulogy at the service. She doesn't have much to say about her dad, Jim (David Thewlis), except he took good care of her pet bunny, Benjamin, whenever she was away. The last time she was away was quite a while, because she was in prison for something she didn't quite commit.
With the film alternating between present and flashbacks, we meet Jim, a nebbish health inspector, widower and former restaurateur, as he visits various eateries, zealously enforcing by-the-book health regulations. His matter of fact, cold approach leads to lively and almost comical situations at times, countering the film's more grievous subjects. At home, he leads a lonely life, with an enormous 15-year-old white rabbit, whose entire life span equals the approximate time elapsed during the film.
Technology has always played a part in Egoyan films. Now it is the use of cellphones in the age of sexting and online harassment and videotapes. Veronica gets into trouble for not handling unwanted attention well while traveling as high school band leader, chaperoning horny teenagers from concert halls and venues to hotel rooms and back and forth.
A prank on a creepy and aggressive bus driver who has a crush on her triggers Veronica's deep-seated, guilty conscience about her boyfriend's suicide when she was a teen. And it all stems from her childhood, when she witnessed Jim holding hands with her music teacher while sitting next to her dying mom at her music recital.
If you think the above plot description is way too convoluted, it is. The plot of Guest of Honour is way too overwrought to be profound or even plausible, and encumbers its big reveal at the end. Many of its intriguing parts -- the bus driver, the horny student, a rabbit's foot keychain, rat droppings and even Jim's profession -- are all ill-served and sacrificed for its intricate plotline.
But there are also some brilliant moments in the film: as it is customary in Egoyan films, there is an all-out, uncomfortable public confessional with a big, emotional display. In Guest of Honour, it takes place in an Armenian restaurant, managed by Anna, who is played by frequent Egoyan collaborator (and his wife), Arsinée Khanjian. Inebriated Jim is supposed to give a speech as a guest of honour and Jim spills out his intentions for killing the bus driver, whom he sees as responsible for ruining his daughter's life.
The scene highlights Thewlis as a gifted, dexterous actor and places him alongside the Egoyan pantheon of memorable fellow British actors, namely Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter and Bob Hoskins in Felicia's Journey, both indulged in brilliant confession scenes of their own. Scenes with Jim visiting Veronica in jail are also wonderful. Their encounters are sometimes accusatory and resentful, but there are also great and tender father-daughter moments, displaying mutual understanding and shared grief.
Guest of Honour might not be the best thing Egoyan has made. But with David Thewlis's affecting and measured performance, it comes close to his heyday of filmmaking in the 90s.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com.