David Thewlis takes the lead in Atom Egoyan’s dark family drama
Nothing cements a director’s career like that first Oscar nomination – but for just as many, it can become an albatross around their necks, an unparalleled high that it proves impossible to match. For Atom Egoyan, the two nominations he received for his 1997 critical darling The Sweet Hereafter have afforded him an air of prestige ever since, even as his own interests have increasingly turned away from intimate character dramas towards something altogether more disreputable. When he does try to recapture the essence of his big critical success, such as with 2013’s Devil’s Knot (his account of the West Memphis Three), it has been regarded as inferior to the films where he flirts with borderline exploitation film ridiculousness (2015’s Remember) and erotic thriller trashiness (2009’s Chloe).
With Guest of Honour, Egoyan seems to have found a comfort zone between these two starkly different forms of filmmaking. This is a downbeat study of one man’s personal and professional downfall after his daughter is sent to prison, examining the ways in which he reckons with a tragedy that could have easily been avoided. But it’s also structured, like many of Egoyan’s films, in a non-linear fashion as deliberately provocative as it is enigmatic – an intimate study of a fractured father daughter relationship that withholds important revelations in the same way a thriller would keep its twists close to its chest. It’s unlikely to see Egoyan recapture the lofty critical heights he ascended to with The Sweet Hereafter, but it doesn’t feel like diminishing returns in the same way so many of his recent “serious” efforts have.
Jim (David Thewlis) is a health inspector whose life has been turned upside down after his daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) has pled guilty to a sexual assault she didn’t commit, because she believes she deserves punishment for an earlier crime. Jim does all he can to prove his daughter’s innocence, but to no avail – and further enquiries about Veronica’s past only serve to push the father and daughter further apart, prison walls or not.
Despite his interests veering further and further away from “worthy” subject matter, Egoyan still has countless prestigious actors lining up to work with him. Despite being a dramatic two hander between a father and daughter, Guest of Honour functions primarily as a vehicle for David Thewlis, in his first live action leading role in more than a decade (outside of television). Thewlis is a performer who is often utilised in the same way as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Werner Herzog – an actor whose own accent is so distinctive, directors will throw in a single line of exposition just so he can be placed at the centre of a drama thousands of miles away from Lancashire. Egoyan utilises that to great effect here, and it only further emphasises Jim’s displacement, his daughter’s imprisonment making an environment he’s adapted to feel newly alien once again.
Keeping in vein with his more preposterous recent output, Guest of Honour does stretch credulity beyond breaking point before we’ve even dug into the trauma that Veronica believes she deserves to be punished for. Egoyan’s skill is that he weaves the unlikely nature of the events into a very believable social issue – here, allegations against her only surface after a different man manufactures text messages in a jealous rage, after she undermines his romantic interest. This is of a piece with the social commentary in 2015’s Remember, which exquisitely poked fun at US gun laws in a sequence where a dementia ridden holocaust survivor (played by Christopher Plummer) managed to buy a gun with no difficulties, despite his mental state visibly deteriorating. Egoyan doesn’t do subtle societal critiques, but they are always believable enough to help anchor what should be too contrived to take seriously elsewhere.
Of course, the film is far from perfect, largely due to the framing device of Veronica sharing her story with a priest (played by Luke Wilson). It’s a puzzling device seeing as we aren’t just flashing back to what landed her in prison, but how her father coped with events – and one that rather frustratingly refuses to further the theme of the unreliable narrator built directly into the story she’s telling. The conflicting nature of a father and daughter hungry for two different forms of justice only clashes with an overarching storytelling conceit that largely undermines the moral complexities. More importantly, it also drains any of the intrigue each time we revisit it.
Guest of Honour is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 5th June