With Canadian director Atom Egoyan, one never truly knows what to expect. Fluctuating between the brilliant and the unremarkable, the filmmaker’s body of work is a sensitive seesaw, ready to shift its weight at any given moment. In Guest of Honour, Egoyan heavily echoes what is arguably his most inspired work, 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, by dwelling on the vicious cycle of disappointments that can forever tarnish the relationship between a father and his daughter.
A former restaurateur turned health inspector, Jim (David Thewlis) is a man who is never off duty — cannot grant himself the luxury — knowing that any leisure time is doomed to be spent either dissecting glimpses of past fleeting happiness or drowning in the agony of the present. A long-time widower, Jim sees his life take yet another drastic tumble when his only daughter, music teacher Veronica (Laysla de Oliveira), pleads guilty to a crime of sexual abuse she did not commit, asking authorities for the harshest possible sentence and condemning herself to prison time.
Struggling to differentiate the daughter he raised, a curious little girl who found comfort in his arms, from the one who now stands in front of him, Jim clenches onto his career, grasping for the last remaining piece of identity. No longer a husband and having failed as a father, he needs to excel at what he has left. Gradually, the barriers between personal and professional become forever blurred. Jim, the health inspector, is the last one standing.
This sentiment is the very one that leads Mitchell (beautifully played by the late Ian Holm) to dive headfirst into a complicated lawsuit investigating a small-town school bus accident in the aforementioned The Sweet Hereafter. Here, Egoyan paints the portrait of a father whose daughter succumbs to drug addiction, leading the family into a neverending cycle of rehabilitation and relapse that ends his marriage and life as he once knew it.
It is easier for Mitchell to handle other people’s sorrow than to face his own, simpler to rely on the comfort of his profession to anesthetise the loss of a daughter he can’t properly grieve. Jim and Mitchell are mirrored images of men eternally changed by the ghosts of daughters that never were.
A tale of loss and pain
Guest of Honour is a triumph of format over content. After Jim’s death, Veronica attempts to realise her father’s dying wish by organising his funeral at a local church. Her meeting with the local priest (Luke Wilson) is employed as a clever narrative device that allows Egoyan to play with time and explore the many layers of loss and pain he is so familiar with.
Not only is the priest an interesting sounding board, but he also provides answers Veronica long yearned for yet could not find. This pre-orchestrated meeting, at first made senseless by the daughter of a vocally agnostic man, is what allows the young woman to find a very needed sense of finality.
To consider Guest of Honour a return to form would be an overstatement, but it certainly feels much truer to the Canadian filmmaker’s essence than the Ryan Reynolds-led thriller The Captive and World War II drama Remember, his two previous ventures. Delivering a career-best, David Thewlis beautifully portrays a sense of hopelessness that engulfs a man who walks through life in a coma, rarely allowing himself a glimmer of joy. At the film’s pivotal scene, an awkward speech delivered at an even more awkward setting, Thewlis turns a formulaic piece of writing into a vulnerable, tender moment, realisation suddenly flowing through his pores.
Mychael Danna’s spectacular score, a cunning nod to Veronica’s love of composing, beautifully connects these two lives destroyed by words unsaid. As the gaps are filled and truths uncovered, the expectation of catharsis becomes almost palpable. What comes next, however, is a disappointing left turn that culminates in a gimmicky final scene. A shame, considering the entrancing rhythm that smartly shifted the seesaw up for most of the film. Guest of Honour may not be Egoyan at his best, but it is most certainly some of the best of Egoyan.
What are some of your favourite Canadian films? Tell us in the comments!
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