Movie review ‘Guest of Honour’ puts people’s motivations above plot turns
It’s been a long time since I discovered and fell under the spell of Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan’s films. First for me was the haunting and quietly sizzling “Exotica” (1994), then the mesmerizing and quietly shocking “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), and the beautiful but quietly menacing “Felicia’s Journey” (1999). Egoyan also made a few films that I wrote off as disappointing, but he again won my favor with “Adoration” (2008) in which, surprisingly and rewardingly, characters, time, and space became more interesting than the story he was telling.
With “Guest of Honour,” Egoyan doesn’t stray very far from the path he made in “Adoration.” This is a contemplative, slow-moving film about people, more about what they’re thinking than in what they actually do. As in “Adoration,” it jumps all over the place in time, and it keeps offering up layer upon layer of multi-textured storytelling for viewers to wade through.
The best way to put it is that a lot is going on, but not much happens. Some events are jarring, some have an air of mystery hanging over them. Flashbacks meld into other flashbacks, but the script keeps returning to current time, where consequences of the past can be measured, maybe even understood. There are feelings of self-doubt and of guilt and of revenge. There are off-screen deaths: one from suicide, one by accident, one due to disease, another that’s never clarified.
That last one is what triggers thoughts of past events, and it’s what opens the film. Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) stops in at a church for a meeting with Father Greg (Luke Wilson) to discuss the upcoming funeral of her father Jim (David Thewlis).
That’s when the script starts spinning and looping and freely moving around in time. It’s initially about Veronica trying to give enough information about her dad to the priest so he can deliver a proper eulogy. But as she speaks, at first feeling unsure, maybe uncomfortable, and he calmly tosses in a few questions, this becomes two separate stories: one about Jim and one about Veronica, though it also works in plenty about the once happy, now troubled father-daughter relationship.
Long ago, Jim owned a restaurant and had dreams of building up a series of them. But something happened and he ended up as a food inspector, roaming from restaurant to convenience store to food truck, making sure everything is up to code, ever-ready to flash his badge if there’s a problem. He’s disappointed that things didn’t work out as planned, but he takes his job seriously and has a good heart, and is willing to cut some slack to violators if he can.
Veronica was a promising young pianist who never realized her potential, and ended up, quite happily, as a high school music teacher and band leader. She has other disappointments weighing her down.
So much is revealed in flashbacks that sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where we are or when it’s happening. There’s no doubt that things were much happier, and the family was very close when Jim’s wife Roseangela was alive. But he’s later seen at home, alone, except for the company of a pet rabbit, watching old family videos with a forlorn look on his face. Veronica was also a lot happier before she went to jail, which is where Jim is visiting her and where she says she’s not interested in early release “after what I did.”
One of Egoyan’s major talents is his manner of letting his stories unfold. He keeps the pace slow, he keeps viewers wondering until he feels it’s the proper time to reveal how and why things have turned out. He does all of this by making the story strands complicated but not confusing. In this case, he anchors it all by continually returning to the discussion between Veronica and Father Greg.
With terrific performances from the entire cast, and one of the best from Thewlis, who has a career full of great ones, the film builds up to being about how our minds can play tricks on us in times of distress, and about a search for the truth, by people who have no idea how to react when it’s found.
“Guest of Honour” opens on VOD and streaming platforms on July 10.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
“Guest of Honour”
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan
With David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson