Guest of Honour

 

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Acting great enough to give real pleasure in a film often misjudged.

 
Guest of Honour   

David Thewlis

 

David Thewlis is one of those talented British actors who has rarely attained the limelight that he deserves. But now in this Canadian work written and directed by Atom Egoyan he has the opportunity to give what may well prove to be one of the best performances to be seen this year. That might suggest that Thewlis is following successfully in the footsteps of Ian Holm who, back in 1997, was given the chance to shine in Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. However, as it turns out the situation is rather different this time: the 1990s was the decade in which Egoyan was at his peak and The Sweet Hereafter was one of his best films, whereas Guest of Honour has already received a number of reviews which following its screening at the Venice Film Festival positively ridiculed it.

 

Hostility to that degree is undeserved. Indeed, I can truthfully say that I enjoyed this film, partly because Egoyan remains an accomplished director (a tale involving many flashbacks is told smoothly and clearly) and partly because one admires throughout the way in which Thewlis so completely inhabits the central character. He plays an Englishman named Jim who, living in Canada, had once been an ambitious restaurant owner but who, after the early death of his wife, took a job as a food inspector which gave him more time to attend to the couple's young daughter, Veronica. When viewed as a youngster learning the piano Veronica is portrayed by Isabella Franca, but we see more of her as an adult (Laysla De Oliveira). Indeed, we first meet her after Jim has died talking to a priest (Luke Wilson) about her father's funeral. It is their talk together that leads into those flashbacks covering both Veronica's childhood years, which had led to a two-pronged traumatic incident, and more recent events no less dramatic. These show how Veronica, having become a school music teacher, has faced charges of sexual misbehaviour with a teenage pupil (Alexandre Bourgeois) and then despite the truth of the matter proved oddly ready to serve a prison sentence for it.

 

Thewlis brings out all the individuality of Jim's character, a man once happy who through circumstance has become something of a loner, an oddity whose judgemental work in health and hygiene checking out restaurants now keeps him distanced from emotion. In a story well in line with other works by Egoyan, the past influences the present and misconceptions play their part as do guilty feelings that are actually out of proportion. But, if that's a convincing concept, much of the writing here is ill-judged, be it behaviour insufficiently fleshed out to be fully convincing or outlandish moments that risk turning the drama risible (early on Mychael Danna's music score suggests some humour in the portrayal of Jim's manner but that note is soon dropped). There are enough misjudgments to leave one aware that they have undermined the proper effectiveness of the story being told. Even so the film is technically adroit, admirably photographed by Paul Sarossy and fields a good cast including an apt role for Egoyan's wife Arsinée Khanjian. On top of that there is Thewlis, so there is plenty to appreciate even if the ultimate verdict must be that the film fails to come off as intended.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Alexandre Bourgeois, Rossif Sutherland, Luke Wilson, Arsinée Khanjian, Isabella Franca, Sochi Fried, Gage Munroe, John  Bourgeois, Tennille Read, Seamus Patterson.

 

Dir Atom Egoyan, Pro Atom Egoyan, Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss, Screenplay Atom Egoyan, Ph Paul Sarossy, Pro Des Phillip Barker, Ed Susan Shipton, Music Mychael Danna, Costumes Lea Carlson.

 

Ego Film Arts/The Film Farm-Curzon.
105 mins. Canada. 2019. Rel: 5 June 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.