Well over three decades into the filmmaker’s up-and-down career, the phrase “written and directed by Atom Egoyan” now carries a distinct set of expectations. The story will concern the intersecting lives of several characters, probably in modern-day Toronto. Themes of guilt, deceit, and disaffection will predominate. History will weigh heavily on the characters, who will struggle with their past traumas and failures. The chronology will be scrambled, and plot points will often be strenuously concealed from the viewer to set up later twists. Egoyan’s longtime collaborator (and wife) Arsinée Khanjian will appear at some point.
These are glib generalizations, of course, although they seem to be most applicable when Egoyan is working from an original screenplay of his own creation. They certainly characterize his breakout international hit, Exotica (1994), which has come to define “an Atom Egoyan film” in ways that are perhaps unfair. The director has since made more than a dozen features, some of them quite divergent from the Exotica mold. Often, these have been adaptations of others’ works, such as his 2005 Martin-and-Lewis roman à clef, Where the Truth Lies, or the tawdry 2009 erotic thriller Chloe, a remake of a 2003 French film. Meanwhile, the director’s enduring masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), although thematically on brand for him, feels more like an outlier with each passing year, thanks in no small part to the anguished focus provided by Russell Banks’ original novel.
The director’s latest film, Guest of Honour, is much closer to what cinephiles might regard as a archetypically Egoyan feature, one consistent with his early original works such as Exotica, Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989), and The Adjuster (1991). It certainly finds the director exhibiting a formal eloquence and thematic attentiveness that has been lacking in his self-scripted features for some time, at least since Ararat (2002). Which is not to say that Guest of Honour is unreservedly “good,” as it still exhibits many of the director’s frustrating tics, such as a laborious narrative coyness about the Traumatic Thing(s) that once befell its characters. It is more akin to a return to comfy form than a comeback, one propped up to a substantial extent by a characteristically strong lead performance from English actor David Thewlis.
Unfolding mostly in flashback, the film is framed by scenes in which Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) calls on local parish priest Father Greg (Luke Wilson) to make the arrangements for her father’s funeral. It is a palpably awkward conversation, in part because Veronica’s father, Jim (Thewlis), was never religious, and thus his final wish to be memorialized at a Catholic church he never attended seems thoroughly inexplicable. Then again, there was much about Jim that was inexplicable. “He made a lot of odd choices,” Veronica admits, as she reluctantly and elliptically describes her father's life so that the priest has at least some perfunctory raw material for his homily.
The Jim portrayed in the film’s flashbacks is a fastidious but faintly disillusioned man. A widower and unsuccessful restaurateur, he works as a health inspector who scrutinizes other people’s establishments, ticking boxes on a tablet as he sniffs out dangerously undercooked meat, incriminating rodent droppings, and employees who neglect their hairnets and handwashing. Although Jim is a nitpicker by nature, he is more of a well-intentioned civil servant than a clipboard tyrant, and he seems genuinely remorseful when he is obligated to shut down family-owned businesses for health-code violations. (Not remorseful enough to let a salmonella-spattered cutting board slide, however.) At night, he returns to his empty house where he drinks wine, listens to records, and lovingly cares for an aged white rabbit named Benjamin. This was once Veronica’s pet, but during the period covered by the majority of the film's flashbacks, Jim’s daughter is serving a prison sentence for the sexual assault of a minor.
How exactly Veronica came to this fate – and why she regards her draconian punishment as less than she deserves – is the subject of further flashbacks. Some of these sequences rewind to her childhood, when her mother, Roseangela (Tennille Read), was battling cancer and her father struck up a suspiciously close friendship with Veronica’s piano teacher, Alicia (Sochi Fried). Other scenes touch on the brief, tragic relationship between Veronica and Alicia’s son, Walter (Gage Munroe), and on the later, bizarre events that eventually landed Veronica in prison. During a high-school concert-band tour on which Veronica served as a conductor and chaperone, she became entangled in a love triangle-turned-hoax involving a student (Alexandre Bourgeois) and a bus driver (Rossif Sutherland). Although he knows Veronica confessed to a crime she did not commit, Jim is still unclear on what exactly happened during this tour. He is even more perplexed as to why his incarcerated daughter is so self-righteously masochistic about the whole thing.
Most of the film’s scenes seem to be set a few years before Jim’s death, but as in many Egoyan features, the timeline is shuffled to conceal plot points and create a sense of vague disorientation. While Veronica’s childhood flashbacks are depicted in a grayish, washed-out soft focus, this sort of stylistic coding is the exception rather than the norm, obliging the viewer to unravel the story’s chronology based primarily on context clues. Not that Guest of Honour is some sort of twisty whodunit that elicits an itchy need to know what happened: It is more of an icy arthouse melodrama at heart, which is why the film’s unnecessarily convoluted storytelling can be frustrating. Egoyan, as usual, draws out the film’s mysteries for frankly dubious dramatic purposes, as if he hopes that each banal revelation will elicit a gasp from the audience. What precisely happened between Veronica and her student during the band tour? What long-ago sins did she commit that she believes demands atonement? What did David do to provoke such haughty anger in his daughter? The answers to these and other questions are much less shocking, plausible, and fascinating than the filmmaker seems to believe.
Still, Guest of Honour is on firmer footing than most of Egoyan’s original works from the past two decades. Compared to the unfocused, preposterous mess that was Adoration (2008), the director’s latest is practically a triumph: handsome, sorrowful, and thematically engaged. Egoyan’s regular collaborators – including cinematographer Paul Sarossy, editor Susan Shipton, and composer Mychael Danna – all contribute vigorously to what is one of the director’s best-looking and -sounding films since The Sweet Hereafter. Sarossy does a particularly superb job of transforming Toronto into a desolate landscape of sharp textural contrasts. Commercial crassness and industrial ugliness rub shoulders with splashes of natural beauty, reflecting the psychological dissonance experienced by Jim as he trudges through his rounds, briefcase in hand like a bureaucrat Willy Loman. The film is also somewhat unexpectedly a showcase for the sweaty, clamorous diversity of the city’s restaurants, with Sarossy lingering in fascination on stone tortilla ovens, rows of pastel macarons, and platters piled with fried rabbit ears.
Rabbits are a recurring motif in Guest of Honour, as it turns out, most conspicuously in the form of Benjamin, who serves as a silent surrogate for Jim’s absent daughter. Indeed, it is Jim’s somewhat idle search for Benjamin’s old pet-show ribbons that eventually cracks open the secrets both father and daughter have been concealing for years. The burden of guilt – and the idiosyncratic way it can distort a life – is one of Egoyan’s perennial subjects, but here he intriguingly connects it to abuses of power. Not in the macro sense of corrupt governments or corporations, but in all the petty, interpersonal ways that people exploit their positions, relationships, and chance opportunities. This theme is perhaps most strikingly expressed when Jim – normally a stickler for the neutral application of the law – gradually starts to take out his frustrations on the restaurants he inspects. Late in the film, he harangues the owners of an Armenian restaurant a bit too forcefully for their improper handling of rabbit carcasses, a confrontation that ends up corkscrewing off in unexpected directions for all parties involved.
Ultimately, it is Thewlis’ meticulously shaded performance as Jim that gives Guest of Honour a gloss of emotional authenticity, inclining one to overlook the film’s other flaws. The one-two punch of Damage (1992) and Naked (1993) made Thewlis a fixture on the international film-festival circuit, and the ridiculously prolific actor has been delivering consistently excellent performances (alongside some wizard and superhero roles) for decades. Egoyan’s screenplay gives Thewlis a leading role and plenty of monologues to chew on, but it still regards Jim at a bit of a chilly distance. It is to the actor’s credit then, that he makes the character feel like a well-rounded, if somewhat eccentric, figure. Jim might resemble a tight-assed functionary at first glance, but like all people he has his habits, his regrets, and his scars. In Thewlis’ hands, he always seems believable, whether he is pompously prowling around a bustling kitchen, rambling drunkenly to a crowd of strangers, or just cuddling Benjamin the rabbit as twilight descends on his still, silent home.
Guest of Honour is now available to rent online from Kino Marquee.