He’s the one visitor you don’t want if you run a food establishment, the spectre at the feast, as it were. Basil Fawlty’s legendary reaction to the arrival of a health inspector summed it up, and the results were brilliantly comic. The inspector at the centre of Atom Egoyan’s Guest Of Honour wields the same power, inspires the same worry if not panic, but what he definitely doesn’t generate is laughter.
Failed restaurant owner, Jim (David Thewlis) takes the food inspector job with its more regular hours and money, but over time feels that everything’s been snatched away from him. His wife dies, his beloved music teacher daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) is sent to jail for abusing her position and he can’t understand why she has no desire to be released early. His investigations into her supposed offence uncover a complicated picture, but also lead him to capitalise on the power than goes with his job to find those answers.
After a somewhat conventional opening – Veronica telling her now-dead father’s story to the understanding Father Greg (Luke Wilson) as he prepares to officiate at the funeral – Egoyan takes us back in time to explore Jim’s personal story and Veronica’s two narratives, both of which have affected her deeply. One involves a prank that went disastrously wrong, but put her in prison and the other goes back into her childhood, which has left her riddled with guilt. It’s a structure that frustrates: the plot twists are revealed too soon, so the second half narrative has little in the way of focus and is left to flip flop backwards and forwards. And the whole story involving the suicide of Veronica’s former boyfriend is confusing and vague.
It’s more intriguing as an examination of the abuse of power and the effect of memories, be they true or false. Jim most definitely takes advantage of the power that goes with his job, one that can have a profound effect on people’s lives. It gives him a sense of purpose, which is absent from the rest of his life. And he refuses to let go of his memory of Veronica as an innocent little girl, dedicating himself to looking after the pet white rabbit he gave her in happier, simpler days.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s biggest strength by far is Thewlis, probably one of the most underrated actors of his generation, as the fastidious food inspector, “the sort of man you hear about but never see”, as Father Greg describes him. Yet, for all that invisibility, he holds the future of all the eating establishments he visits in his increasingly shaky hands as he heads towards something approaching a public breakdown. It’s a fascinating performance, at times uncomfortable but always compelling. In truth, however, it deserves to be a stronger film
Drama | Cert: tbc | Artificial Eye | Curzon Home Cinema, 5 June 2020 | Dir. Atom Egoyan | David Thewlis, Luke Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Rossif Sutherland.