Friday, July 10, 2020

Egoyan’s Guest of Honour

Jim loved international cuisine, but he was not very Bourdain-like in his adventurousness. In fact, he closed many restaurants as a picky food inspector. His daughter Veronica thought it was an odd choice for a second career, but she did not understand her father, the former restauranteur very well—and vice versa. However, she will start to learn the truth as she prepares for his funeral in Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour (note the Canadian “u” in “honour”), which opens virtually today for the New York market.

Initially, neither Father Greg or Veronica understand why Jim requested a memorial service in his church, but he is more than willing to oblige. He asks Veronica to tell him something about her father and hence the film unfolds in flashbacks. It seems she always blamed him for committing an unforgivable sin during her youth, but the circumstances might be more complex than she realized. Tragically, her anger led to her own moral infractions. However, she would be punished for a crime she did not commit: alleged sexual improprieties with members of the high school concert band she formerly led.

Slowly, Egoyan and Father Greg will unravel the truth. The latter is a small but pivotal role, played with unexpected sensitivity by Luke Wilson. In fact, Father Greg is one of the most humanistic and redemptive priests portrayed in English language cinema since who knows what? Of course, titular guest is the center of attention and David Thewlis does some of his best work since the once under-appreciated The Lady (responses to which will now be complicated by subsequent developments in Burma). He is a conflicted and contradictory figure, but Thewlis fully conveys his pathos. Likewise, Laysla De Olivera is equally confounding as Veronica, eliciting sympathy and frustration in equal measure.

Egoyan is a master at coaxing out these kinds of soul-searing performances. Indeed, Guest bears the hallmarks of his best films. In the Egoyaniverse, to live is to suffer—and the father-daughter duo live and breath guilt and agony. The big dawning-of-the-light moment is actually quite believable, because Egoyan lays sufficient groundwork to set it up—maybe even too much. The first act is decidedly slow, while some of indignities Veronica accepts are problematically creepy and the guilty whom she effectively protects (bafflingly) are utterly contemptible. Nevertheless, the payoff is powerful.

Guest could be described as a mystery, but not in any genre sense of the word. Instead, it reveals the sort of mysteries that are shrouded in real people’s family histories. It will not make you hungry to eat out again, but it is the sort of thesp showcase that Egoyan originally made his name with. For those who know his work, consider it a good, but not great Egoyan film. Respectfully recommended to mature (and patient) audiences, Guest of Honour opens virtually today (7/10), via Kino Marquee.