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 perfectly decent, but hardly vintage. 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 serial killer — an encounter that changes both their lives. Artisan faces a challenge in marketing the relatively simple and less-layered (by Egoyan standards) psychosexual thriller, which is mounted as an art film and is likely to divide both critics and the helmer’s fans.
Though based on a novel by William Trevor, “Felicia’s Journey” is a very personal 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 present in the new film, but they are not as well integrated into the text as in his previous movies. As always with Egoyan, the director’s approach to storytelling and rich mise-en-scene are more important than the story proper.
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 methodically the demonstrations of Gala (Arsinee Khanjian), an eccentric French gourmet chef. Then, elegantly dressed, he sits down ceremoniously to eat his creations alone. At work, Hilditch is highly respected by his employees, who seek his approval of every new dish.
Hilditch’s daily routine is subtly intercut with scenes of 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 is a typical character for Egoyan: a displaced, solitary figure facing bleak and alienating surroundings.
First scenes capture with meticulous detail the contrast between the cold, industrial Birmingham and Felicia’s green, intimate Irish village, where she takes long walks in the field and experiences her 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 McSorley) warning her against Johnny, who he suspects has joined the British army.
Also revealing are encounters between Felicia and Johnny’s mother (Brid Brennan), who refuses to disclose her son’s address. Neither her father nor Johnny’s mother is aware that Felicia is pregnant. Hoping to reach Johnny, she sends him letters at his mother’s address, but the mother destroys them.
First meeting between Felicia and Hilditch occurs early on, when he recommends a bed-and-breakfast and offers help in locating Johnny. Creepiness and tension are enhanced in a wonderful shot, as Hilditch watches Felicia walking in the rearview mirror of his car. A portly bachelor, Hilditch pretends to be married to a sickly, hospitalized woman named Ada.
Secondary characters are scarce here. Among the more prominent figures is Miss Calligary (Claire Benedict), a fanatical Jamaican door-to-door preacher who brings the homeless, penniless Felicia to the “gathering house,” where she is welcomed by a multicultural group of believers.
“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 discovers Hilditch’s dubious past. But Egoyan displays his unique touch in the monologues of a dozen homeless girls, mostly via video, all of them “befriended” and abused in one way or another by Hilditch.
Throughout, intense, terrifying encounters are juxtaposed with broader, humorous sequences in which Hilditch interacts with Gala via her TV show. A number of priceless scenes depict Gala and a fat boy named Joey, drawing illuminating parallels between Hilditch as a boy and as an adult.
Through the deftly constructed characters and emotionally resonant dialogue, Egoyan shows how two strikingly different individuals are forced to deal with various forms of denial and suppression. Such concerns — prominent in all Egoyan’s pics — elevate “Felicia’s Journey” from routine psychosexual thriller to an ambitious drama. Both Hilditch and Felicia embark on journeys that involve coming to terms with romantic, familial and political issues. Downbeat as the resolution is, it’s congruent with the film’s central themes of confronting pain and the miraculous power of healing.
The beautiful Cassidy carries the film on her young shoulders in a flawless, highly modulated performance. In a challenging role, Hoskins also acquits himself honorably with a quietly restrained turn.
It’s always a pleasure to observe the sublime camera and editing in Egoyan’s work, and this film is no exception. Paul Sarossy’s lensing is luminous, particularly his long tracking shots of bleak Birmingham as a visual corollary to the bleakness of the lives examined here.
Pic makes excellent use of pop hits “More Than Ever,” “My Special Angel” and “The Heart of a Child,” all rendered by Malcolm Vaughan. (Original as Mychael Danna’s score is, it’s occasionally overwhelming.)
Still, the film could benefit from a 10-minute trim, especially in the first hour.