Felicia’s Journey: Directed by Atom Egoyan

Lacking the complexity, lyricism, and moral ambiguity of the prize-winning The Sweet Hereafter, an artistic highlight in Atom Egoyan’s rapidly evolving career, his new movie, Felicia’s Journey, is a decent but no vantage Egoyan picture.

Toplined by an understated but effective Bob Hoskins and the terrifically promising Elaine Cassidy, this intriguing psychological drama centers on the fateful encounter between a naive adolescent girl and a creepy serial killer that utterly changes their life. Artisan faces a challenge in marketing a rather simple and less layered (by Egoyan standards) psychological-sexual thriller that is mounted as an art film and is likely to divide both critics and helmer’s fans. Theatrical prospects look bad.

Though based on a novel by William Trevor, Felicia’s Journey is very much a personal, if not a visionary film. All of Egoyan’s recurrent motifs–the impact of technology on everyday life, alienation and displacement, the meaning of intimacy in interpersonal relationships, are in the new film, except they are not as well integrated into the main text as in his former movies. Still, as always with Egoyan, how the story is told, or more specifically the director’s approach toward his material and the rich mise-en-scene, is far more important than the story proper.

Mr. Joseph Ambrose Hilditch (Hoskins), a middle-aged catering manager, lives in a large, cluttered house in Birmingham, where he spends his time watching a video of an old TV cooking program as he prepares his own elaborate meals. Step by step, he follows quite methodically the demonstrations of Gala (Arsinee Khanjian), an eccentric French gourmet chef. Then, elegantly dressed he sits down rather ceremoniously to eat his creations alone. At work, Hilditch is highly respected by his employees, who go out of their way to ask for his approval of every new dish.

Hilditch’s daily routine is subtly intercut with a young, beautiful girl, Felicia (Cassidy), on a ferry from Ireland, traveling to Birmingham in search of Johnny (Peter McDonald), with whom she’s passionately in love. Johnny has presumably left for England to work in a lawnmower factory, but he left no address. Armed with little more than the name of the city and a knapsack in which she carries her money, Felicia belongs to Egoyan’s most typical characters: A displaced, solitary figure facing bleak and alienating surroundings.

First scenes capture with meticulous attention to detail the contrast between the cold, impersonal industrial Birmingham, and Felicia’s green and intimate Irish village, where she takes long walks in the field and experiences the taste of first kiss with Johnny. Interweaving past and present, brief flashbacks are inserted in a most absorbing and illuminating manner (a trademark of Egoyan’s style). They depict Felicia’s stern father (Gerard McDonald), warning her against Johnny, whom he suspects has joined the British army. Citing family bloodshed and patriotism, the father declares Johnny a public enemy.

Also revealing are encounters between Felicia and Johnny’s mother (Brid Brennan), who refuses to disclose her son’s address and literally shuts Felicia out of her house. Neither her father, nor Johnny’s mother, are initially aware that Felicia is pregnant. Hoping to reach Johnny, she keeps sending him letter to his mother’s address, but the mother ruthlessly burns them in the fireplace.

First meeting between Felicia and Hilditch occurs early on, when he recommends a bed and breakfast place and offers help in locating Johnny. Creepiness and tension are enhanced in a wonderful shot, as Hilditch watches Felicia walk through the rear-view mirror of his green Morris Minor. Later, when Felicia leaves her bag in Hilditch’s car, he searches through her belongings and pockets her cash money. A portly bachelor, Hilditch pretends to be married to Ada, a sickly woman, whom he claims is hospitalized.

Secondary characters are scarce in this movie, compared to the large and diverse ensembles in Egoyan’s pix. Among the more prominent figures is Miss Calligary (Claire Benedict), a fanatical Jamaican door-to-door preacher, who brings the homeless and penniless Felicia to the “gathering house,” where she is welcomed by a disparate, multi-cultural group of believers. Later on, Miss Calligary has a crucial scene, when she unexpectedly arrives at Hilditch’s house and he confesses to have stolen Felicia’s money.

Felicia’s Journey is one of Egoyan’s most narrowly focused dramas, basically a two-character chamber piece, particularly in the second hour, when Felicia discloses Hilditch’s dubious past. But once again, Egoyan displays his unique touch in introducing, mostly via videos, the monologues of a dozen homeless girls, all “befriended” and abused in one way or another by Hilditch. A series of splendidly staged scenes follow, in which Hilditch talks Felicia into getting an abortion and then offers her recovery in his house.

Throughout, intense, terrifying encounters are juxtaposed with broader and humorous sequences, in which Hilditch interacts with Gala via her TV show. There are a number of priceless scenes that depict Gala and a fat boy named Joey, which draw illuminating parallels between the young and the older Hilditch.

Through the deftly constructed characters and emotionally resonant dialogue, Egoyan shows two individuals who are strikingly different, yet both are forced to deal with various forms of denial and suppression. It’s these issues–prominent in each Egoyan film–that elevate Felicia’s Journey above the level of a routine psycho-sexual thriller. Both Hilditch and Felicia embark on journeys that involve coming to terms with romantic, familial and even political issues. Downbeat as the resolution is, it’s congruent with the film’s central themes of confronting pain (and perversion) and the miraculous power of healing.

The beautiful Cassidy carries the film on her young shoulders in a flawless, highly modulated performance. Playing a most challenging role, Hoskins also acquits himself honorably with a quietly restrained turn.

It’s always a pleasure to observe the camera work and editing in Egoyan’s work. Paul Sarossy’s lensing is luminous, particularly his long tracking shots of bleak Birmingham as a visual corollary to the bleakness of the characters and text. Pic makes excellent use of pop hits, “More Than Ever,” “My Special Angel,” and “The Heart of a Child,” all rendered by Malcolm Vaughan, though original as Mychael Danna’s score is, it’s occasionally overwhelming.

The film could benefit from a 15 minute trimming, especially in the first hour, without causing any damage to its integrity or emotional effectiveness.