Published Jul 08, 2020Guest of Honour, is a curious gem that really creeps up on you. Throughout, it evades categorization in the subtlest ways, again and again. By giving the film its uniquely layered form, director Atom Egoyan (Chloe, The Sweet Hereafter) is able to offer a complex and enthralling drama/dark comedy/crime thriller all packaged up in soft hues, convincing performances and a beautiful classical score. It'll keep audiences guessing until the end.
The excellent and versatile David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies), plays an unassuming health inspector going from restaurant to restaurant, making sure everyone is following the rules. Meanwhile, his daughter, ex-music teacher and conductor Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), sits in jail for a sexual assault she didn't really commit, because she feels she deserves the punishment. As the story unfolds, we learn about how Jim's and Veronica's pasts, full of misconceptions and white lies, have simultaneously distanced them and brought them together.
But this is not the full story, exactly. The movie actually begins with Veronica preparing for Jim's funeral (this isn't a spoiler), telling Father Greg (Luke Wilson) about what made Jim special — this is the first layer of narration. And then there are the secrets, unveiled by one character to another and then told to Veronica, bringing us full circle. It's like a set of Matryoshka dolls in narrative form; think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It is this style of narration that allows Egoyan to slip in layer upon layer of complexities that defy a single genre. Jim's health-inspecting scenes tingle with a sweet irony, while Veronica's are febrile, trembling under the strain of past traumas.
Narrative complexities are reflected in the characters themselves through personality layers. As Jim, Thewlis can seem helpless in one scene, be a lonely widow nursing a glass of wine in yet another scene, and then become stubbornly strict (but kind) in his adherence to the proper protocol as he inspects restaurants — he slips between these with deft ease. Most of all, he's cunning — something that's mirrored in Veronica. Both, with an unassuming air about them, possess keen intellects, their brains working in calculating and incisive ways. Oliveira is good, capable of screaming in panic when moments before she was dancing with levity.
This is not to say that either Jim or Veronica lack a centre, a stable identity. Their beleaguering pasts, as they are unveiled through the narratives, outfit each character with unique moral compasses at their cores, explaining their reasons for being the way they are. Each is a distinct, compelling, curious identity.
That being said, the scenes between Veronica and Father Greg, comprising the first circle of the story, are a bit stiff from a technical perspective. But perfunctory as these scenes are, they are instrumental in advancing the plot. Oliveira is better in scenes with Thewlis, or moving to the music as she conducts her students.
Wilson, as Father Greg, is his inimitable self: benign, sweet enough to give you a cavity. Interestingly, Wilson's is the only one-dimensional character, as he is confined by the rules of the church.
Overall, with its unassuming but calm score and colouring — hazy yellows and greys — and its swift slips through genres, Guest of Honour delights through creative storytelling and compelling acting. A story told by being told, it'll keep you on the edge of your seat as few like it can. (Elevation Pictures)