Oscar-nominated Filmmaker Atom Egoyan Explores Grief, Guilt In ‘Guest Of Honour'
In the sprawling melodrama Guest of Honour, Oscar-nominated writer and director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) tells the story of Jim (David Thewlis), a health code inspector whose daughter, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), is accused of a crime she didn’t commit.
The screenplay, which is nonlinear like many of Egoyan’s previous films, skips back and forth to reveal a narrative centered on hefty themes like memory, guilt and grief and the relationship between a father and daughter that is tearing from the seams.
While the dramatic elements are plentiful and much too complicated to delve into fully, some of the most fascinating scenes of Guest of Honour are the moments viewers get to see Jim inside the restaurants he is scoring on their cleanliness and safety. It is a profession Egoyan found fascinating because of the difference between Jim’s job responsibilities and how he handles his day-to-day life.
“[Jim] goes into these places to see that they are conforming to code and following rules,” Egoyan said in an interview by phone last month. “He sees that a way of managing all these divergent cultures and traditions is somehow only possible if being regulated. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with a mess of things in his own life that have not been tended to properly.”
It is during these restaurant inspections that Jim, while his life is far from perfect, can dictate what it means for the owners of these venues to be able to continue operating their businesses. He takes his job seriously and it shows in the attention to detail he gives each establishment he visits.
“There is something that gives him space to reflect on his life,” Egoyan said. “He’s very obsessive about his work. It’s an outlet for these other issues that he’s dealing with.”
Grief is one of those issues. It’s a subject Egoyan has confronted many times before, including in dramas like 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, which tells the story of a horrific school bus accident in a small town; 2002’s Ararat about the Armenian genocide; and 2008’s Adoration, a film based partly on the true story of a failed terrorist bombing on a flight to Tel Aviv from London in 1986. As a writer who is Armenian, Egoyan said there is already a natural “backdrop of extreme grief” present when he starts to tap into a script’s difficult emotions.
“Then, there are the people that you lose on the way [and] the relationships you have,” he said. “All the normal things that I think call to the sense of how frail the connection we have to each other actually might be and how important it is to hold onto every moment as long as possible.”
Although Egoyan has not found the same level of critical acclaim that he did for The Sweet Hereafter 23 years ago, he considers it a film so special that it would be impossible to recreate.
“I was at a certain point in my life and a certain point in my creative development,” he said. “There were things that I explored and not explored. I got to explore them with a cast that I completely trusted. All those things come together and you feel it.”
Kiko Martinez is a film journalist and critic based in San Antonio, Texas.