Atom Egoyan is a popular and prolific Canadian filmmaker. He has been a favorite with audiences at the Toronto Film Festival for more than twenty years. He had a critical and box-office success as far back as 1994 with a thriller about strip clubs called Exotica. His top-rated film is 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter about a bus crash in a small town. Yet browsing through his filmography on the Internet Movie Database, I note that a good number of his films received mixed reviews and rather low audience ratings.
Such is the case so far with his newly-released feature, Guest of Honour, starring accomplished British actor/writer/director David Thewlis, whom many will know as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films. The story focuses on a recently deceased food inspector named Jim, and his adult daughter Veronica. As the film progresses, we learn the back stories of these two, their personality flaws, and their secret and not-so-secret hoaxes and crimes. Thewlis plays his character in an emotional hot mode. Laysla De Olivera, as the daughter, plays cool. The result might have given a balance to the dramatic experience that this film offers; however, due to the extremely passionate performance of Thewlis, most of our attention is diverted to his character.
Who is Jim; what sort of life has he led? What drives him? How has he been harmed by life? The narrative gets more and more puffed up as time passes and is complicated by Egoyan’s choice to use a plethora of flashbacks that are out of chronology and at times repeated. We first see Jim confronting a young server in a mall food court. There is a hair in his food. It isn’t at all a highly demonstrative scene, however, it’s a subtle clue to Jim’s quirks. That is just the beginning of the film’s attempts to bring its audience deep into Jim’s troubled world, into his mindset which gradually drops from fairly rational to unbalanced and finally to pathetic.
Here we have two personality studies, even though our attention is pulled more to the father. Egoyan relies heavily on Thewlis’s performance to carry the film to fruition. Too heavily. Even though it is a fine performance, by the final half hour, the character seems over-exposed. Further, Jim has turned cruel, and I, for one, was disgusted by his actions. Veronica has had a difficult time— with an accusation of sexual assault towards a teenaged boy, one of her students. Jim is filled with hatred as he seeks revenge on those involved in the prank.
Add to all this a very large white rabbit called Benjamin. The pet becomes a key component in the poignant lives of Jim and Veronica. Amid their helter-skelter existences, this huge bunny leads a peaceful life held captive in its own designated space.
I am left wondering just what is the point of Guest of Honour. Is Egoyan showing us that basically decent people can be soured, turned into dark personalities, by less than a handful of incidents in their lives?
Egoyan directs his cast, the main actors as well as those in small roles-- skillfully. His visuals, including scenes of the Hamilton and Toronto locations, are at times inspired. He over-uses cinematic tools such as editing and playing with time. As many filmmaking colleagues of mine have discovered, it’s a modern pitfall to fiddle about for too long in the editing room.
A motion picture that explores the personalities of its main characters, rather than telling a straight-forward story, is a worthy challenge. In Guest of Honour there are moments of monotony when I would have welcomed a few new story threads. Still, it’s a talented film – a capable filmmaker’s take on two puzzling lives.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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