Friday November 19, 1999
Atom Egoyan continues to explore the ways in which people are damaged by terrible loss and loneliness and how they strive to overcome them.
This wonderfully accomplished film, which Egoyan adapted from William Trevor's prize-winning 1994 novel, has the ingredients of a traditional-style psychological thriller, but what interests Egoyan is neither edge-of-the-seat suspense for its own sake nor the struggle between good and evil but instead the evocation of a tragic figure and beyond that, the hope of salvation and redemption. "Felicia's Journey" ranks up there with "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) and "Exotica" (1994); the three form a kind of Egoyan trilogy, consolidating the Canadian filmmaker's status as a major director in contemporary world cinema.
The journey that Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) takes proves to cover a great deal more terrain than the merely geographical. She's a 17-year-old demure beauty from a rural Ireland village who has not heard from her lover who has gone to England, ostensibly to take a job in a lawn-mower factory in the Birmingham area. He had not sent his address as he had promised, and now that she has discovered that she is pregnant, she comes to England's Midlands industrial region in search of him.
In the meantime we meet Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a fussy, middle-aged food services manager for an immense Birmingham factory. Hilditch is a perfectionist but is much appreciated, for he is quick to praise his staffers who meet his high standards and routinely seeks out workers to see if various dishes are as tasty as he thinks they should be. The result is that the workers where Hilditch is employed are most likely the best-fed in the entire city.
Egoyan backs into his story, letting us learn about Felicia and Hilditch bit by bit. Following Hilditch home, we discover that he lives in a large suburban residence in which nothing seems to have changed since the 1950s. In his out-sized kitchen Hilditch prepares elaborate formal meals for himself alone while watching flickering black-and-white videos of an old TV cooking show, featuring a glamorous, heavily French-accented chef named Gala (Arsinee Khanjian). In time we realize that Gala was Hilditch's mother, and that her shows were shot in the very home where her son continues to live.
Gala is a self-absorbed, highly theatrical personality, and when she sometimes lassos her pudgy adolescent son into appearing with her the experience for him is most likely unbearably humiliating. Gala's extravagant displays of affection for her son are betrayed by the ease with which she is able to dismiss him callously. (We know nothing of the boy's father.) Sometime in the past Gala apparently died, leaving her son permanently traumatized.
Felicia and Hilditch cross paths several times. As Felicia's plight goes from bad to worse, Hilditch's carefully measured remarks seem increasingly soothing. As time passes we detect a highly practiced quality in Hilditch's manner as he takes on an increasingly sinister cast.
In what is arguably Hoskins' finest performance, he gives us a man whose naturally kind and thoughtful impulses have been short-circuited, leaving him in a state of isolation from which his attempts to escape have taken on a dark, destructive form. It is a measure of the quality of the film's writing and directing and of Hoskins' talent that "Felicia's Journey" packs a real depth charge, for we are able to connect with Hilditch on a very deep level and see in him whatever traumatic losses we have ever experienced ourselves.
Hilditch is often amusing in the way his propensity for propriety and sentimentality assume bizarre proportions and grotesque expression, but ultimately he is to be taken very seriously. You could describe Hilditch as a twisted variation on the kindly driver Hoskins played so memorably in Neil Jordan's "Mona Lisa."
Cassidy, for her part, brings the sensitivity and radiance to Felicia needed to make her able to appeal to the humanity lingering in the monster Hilditch has become. Similarly, Claire Benedict also faces a formidable challenge in playing the very religious Miss Calligary, who must be genuinely sincere no matter how outrageously overbearing she becomes.
Clearly, Egoyan has inspired his actors to take risks while never losing his own perspective. It's evocatively photographed by Paul Sarossy and scored by Mychael Danna, whose ominous, edgy, sometimes outright jangly music plays such a large role in sustaining the film's portentous mood. "Felicia's Journey" is one of the year's riskiest yet most effective films.
Felicia's Journey, 1999. PG-13, for mature thematic elements and related disturbing images. An Artisan Entertainment presentation. Writer-director Atom Egoyan. Based on the novel by William Trevor. Producer Bruce Davey. Executive producers Paul Tucker, Ralph Kamp. Cinematographer Paul Sarossy. Editor Susan Shipton. Music Mychael Danna. Costumes Sandy Powell. Production designer Jim Clay. Art director Chris Seagers. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Cecilia Roth as Manuela. Marisa Paredes as Huma Rojo. Candela Pen~a as Nina. Antonia San Juan as Agrado. Penelope Cruz as Sister Rosa. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jericho Cane. Gabriel Byrne as Satan. Kevin Pollak as Chicago. Robin Tunney as Christine York. Rod Steiger as Father Kovak. Bob Hoskins as Hilditch. Elaine Cassidy as Felicia. Claire Benedict as Miss Calligary. Arsinee Khanjian as Gala.