Guest of Honour review – David Thewlis grapples with sex, sin and dirty kitchens | Film

Atom Egoyan and David Thewlis, two wayward stars of the 90s, make a valiant effort to stoke the embers of past glories in Guest of Honour, an elaborate, time-slipping thriller about the sins of the past and the moral quandaries of the present. I’m not convinced it amounts to any more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are intriguing – and some are possessed of real power.

Thewlis plays Jim Davis, a health inspector whose soft-spoken, unsmiling demeanour is either indicative of intense professionalism or creeping depression. He’s travelling between the restaurants of Toronto, identifying a hair in the food here, a rat dropping there, all the while pondering the crimes of his adult daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), who has landed in jail after supposedly having sex with her students. And elsewhere, in one of several parallel timelines, Veronica is puzzling over her dad, sitting down with a local priest (Luke Wilson, nodding and frowning) to compose the man’s eulogy. It’s as though these parties are operating on different frequencies, each cocking their heads to discern the actions of the other.

Jim can’t understand why his daughter is in jail, why she seems to relish being there and precisely what crime she thinks she’s being punished for. I share his confusion. Egoyan’s set-up is so rich and teasing, marbled with portents of disaster, that he has us salivating in anticipation of some outrageous twist or psychological plunge. It’s all shaping up very nicely. He gives us the hint of a betrayal; the presence of a sleazy high-school bus driver. Except that when the big reveal occurs, one is left wondering just why this small cluster of transgressions have caused so much ruin.

Lauded throughout the 1990s, Egoyan has been on a downward spiral ever since. Guest of Honour is good enough to at least arrest that trajectory but it feels overthought and overwrought, as if its creator got carried away and dropped too many ingredients in the pot. But nestled at its centre is a terrific turn from Thewlis, whose anguished food inspector is pathetic and misguided yet never without dignity. The film’s conceit is ripe and suspect. Thewlis’s performance just about keeps it honest.

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