July 21, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Culture Representation: Taking place in Canada, the dramatic film “Guest of Honour” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A woman who spent time in prison for a crime she didn’t commit attempts to reconcile with her past and her family secrets when she meets with a priest about her father’s funeral.
Culture Audience: “Guest of Honour” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse psychological dramas that are slow-moving and where people act illogically.
The movie “Guest of Honour” (written and directed by Atom Egoyan) presents itself as a psychologically driven drama that’s supposed to unravel a family mystery, but the only mystery that viewers will be faced with is whether or not it’s worth their time to slog through this convoluted and often-dull film. Although the movie is anchored by an interesting and somewhat complex performance by David Thewlis, ultimately it falls short in how the characters are developed and how sluggish and illogical the story ends up being in many ways.
“Guest of Honour” begins with a woman in her late 20s who is meeting with a priest at a church, in order to make arrangements for her widower father’s funeral. She has never met this priest before, but she’s there because it was her father’s dying wish to have his funeral service conducted by the priest at this church. The woman’s name is Veronica Davis (played by Laysla De Oliveria), and the priest’s name is Father Greg (played by Luke Wilson). Veronica starts to tell Father Greg not only her life story but also what her father Jim Davis (played by Thewlis) was like when Veronica knew him.
And apparently, Father Greg has enough time on his hands to listen, because as the story unfolds to viewers in this 103-minute movie, it’s a rather long-winded, non-linear, rambling tale that will test the patience of people having to hear it. The movie flashes back and forth between showing Veronica’s life as a child, Veronica’s life as an adult, David’s life before his wife died of cancer, and David’s life as a widower.
There’s a lot to unpack about David’s and Veronica’s lives, but one thing is clear: Veronica has had a lot of people close to her die while she’s still in her 20s. She also spent time in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, but she confessed to the crime and asked for the maximum sentence. Why? Because she feels guilty about something she did in her past.
Most of the movie has spoiler information, so the only spoiler-free details that can really be revealed are from some of the flashback scenes. Viewers find out that David’s wife/Veronica’s mother Roseangela (played by Tennille Read) was a Brazilian immigrant in Canada. Veronica is David and Roseangela’s only child.
This family of three had a happy life until Roseangela got cancer when Veronica was about 9 years old. David, who never remarried, used to own a restaurant. But at some point in his life, he switched careers to become a health inspector of restaurants.
Flashbacks show that David was a very stern inspector who took his job very seriously. He liked to randomly show up and surprise people with his inspections. And he wouldn’t hesitate to shut down a restaurant for health-code violations.
There’s a scene where he finds a strand of hair in his food while dining at a food court, and he gives a scathing lecture to the young woman behind the counter for not wearing a hair net while working. There are no scenes of David as a restaurateur, but there are scenes of him visiting Veronica in prison and being frustrated when she refuses his offer to help her get released early.
When Veronica was a child (played by Isabella Franca), she took piano lessons from a family friend named Alicia (played by Sochi Fried), who had a son named Walter (played by Alexander Marsh), who was approximately the same age as Veronica. Walter and Veronica became close friends, and that relationship had developed into a romance by the time that they became young-adult teenagers. (Gage Munroe plays the adult Walter.)
As for the crime that landed Veronica in prison, even though she didn’t commit the crime, it was for sexual misconduct with an underage student. A flashback shows that Veronica used to be a music teacher at a high school, where she was the conductor of the school’s orchestra. Being a young, attractive and popular teacher got her a lot of attention from the male students, as well as other people who were in her orbit.
While on a tour with the school orchestra, one of the students named Clive (played by Alexandre Bourgeois) has an obvious crush on Veronica, so he boldly asks her out to dinner after one of the orchestra’s performances. Veronica politely declines and says that she has a dinner date with the tour bus driver, whose name is Mike (played by Rossif Sutherland). Mike is a scruffy creep who’s about 10 to 15 years older than Veronica. She’s not interested in Mike, but Veronica is temporarily using Mike as a “shield” to ward off Clive’s advances.
When Veronica has dinner with Mike, it’s obvious that Mike is attracted to her too. He’s been noticing that Veronica and Clive have a little bit of a mutual flirtation, but as far as anyone can see, there’s nothing inappropriate going on between the student and the teacher. When Veronica tells Mike that she’s only having dinner with him so that Clive will lose interest in her, Mike is offended. However, Veronica tells Mike that he shouldn’t be insulted because she’s being honest with him in telling him that she’s not interested in dating Mike either.
The movie reveals exactly how Veronica got into trouble and why she was accused of sexual misconduct. There’s also quite a bit of screen time showing David on the job as an inspector. Although he can be a tough evaluator, he also shows moments of compassion. One of the restaurants that David inspects is a place called the Vienna Tavern, where he has a fateful meeting with a restaurant manager named Anna (Arsinée Khanjian).
And a white rabbit named Benjamin, which David gave to Veronica as a gift when she was 9 years old, is a quasi-metaphor in the movie for David’s relationship with Veronica. The rabbit lives a lot longer than most rabbits, and that longevity is mentioned in the movie, to make it obvious to viewers that this is supposed to be a special rabbit.
David takes care of Benjamin when Veronica is in prison. He clings to the rabbit in moments when it’s obvious that he’s thinking of Veronica. David and Veronica also think a rabbit’s foot is a good-luck charm, which leads to a gruesome request that David makes toward the end of the film.
One of the striking things about this family drama is how isolated David and Veronica seem to be in their lives after Roseangela died. If Veronica and David have any other relatives or any other friends besides Walter and Alicia, they are not seen or mentioned at all in this movie, which is why this story feels like a lot is missing. There’s also a cringeworthy part of the movie where Father Greg commits a major breach of ethics by revealing to Veronica something confidential that David told Father Greg.
The weakest part of “Guest of Honour” is when David tries to play private detective, in order to find out exactly how and why Veronica got in trouble and imprisoned for a crime that he knows that she didn’t commit. It leads to some hokey moments, such as when David does some melodramatic shouting in a restaurant about Veronica’s reputation and how she’s not the type of person to commit the crime.
This investigation takes an emotional toll on David, but the scenes just aren’t very well-written. David goes from being a nebbish health inspector to having an almost vigilante-like obsession to get justice for his daughter. He’s not acting like Liam Neeson in a “Taken” movie, but David starts making threats as if he’s some kind of mob boss for the health department.
As a mystery, “Guest of Honour” (whose title is explained in the film) loses steam by the last third of the film because Veronica’s secret has already been revealed at this point. It’s not a surprise that David has a secret too, which is revealed toward the end of film, but his secret is very anti-climactic.
Although the acting and most of the production elements (such as cinematography and production design) in “Guest of Honour” are good (but not great), ultimately the movie could have benefited from a better screenplay and tighter editing. The father and daughter at the center of this story are written as a series of unfortunate events instead of people with emotionally rich and full lives.
Kino Lorber released “Guest of Honour” in select U.S. and Canadian virtual cinemas on July 10, 2020. The movie’s DVD and Blu-ray release date is August 18, 2020.