Canada/U.K., 1999. Rated PG-13. 116 minutes.
Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy, Claire Benedict, Gerard McSorley, Arsinée
Khanjian, Peter McDonald, Brid Brennan, Danny Turner
|Grade: B||Review by Jeff Vorndam|
**Warning: If you prefer to see this film with no prior knowledge of the story then proceed no further, and trust me that my grade isn’t some random keystroke (sucker). This review does contain mild spoilers.**
n all too innocent ingenue and a methodically sinister recluse collide in Atom Egoyan’s latest cerebral offering. After the breakthrough arthouse success of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan’s new film might sound like a step toward more commercial thriller territory. Believe me, it’s not. Felicia’s Journey does not pander or shock; it insinuates and creeps. It’s a slow-burner that feels cold and disaffected at first but warms to an emotionally intricate and febrile finale.
Elaine Cassidy is Felicia, a naïve young Irish girl who runs away from home to Birmingham, England in search of her no-account boyfriend Johnny (Peter McDonald). She is jobless and pregnant, and under the impression that Johnny is trying to contact her as soon as he gets settled. Felicia’s father (a surly Gerard McSorley) tells her that Johnny’s joined the British Army – making him a traitor to Ireland. Felicia refuses to believe her father. Her innocence is underscored by the fact that she enters England without any identification, and is perplexed when asked for it. She does have a wad of money, thanks to her grandmother, and she sets out along the roads of the industrial city of Birmingham, searching for a lawnmower factory where she thinks Johnny is working. It is alongside the road that she first meets Hilditch (Bob Hoskins).
We’ve already been introduced to Hilditch at this point. He works for a catering company and his exacting taste buds make him a valuable commodity. The early scenes of Hilditch at work paint us the picture of a detail-oriented and fastidious man, probably on the obsessive-compulsive side. His home life is far more insidious though. The décor is straight from the 1950s; he listens to scratchy old LPs and drives a boxy classic car (that resembles him physically). More disturbing is the fixation with which he watches videotaped copies of an old cooking show, sometimes with the aid of ornate opera glasses. It becomes evident that the woman hosting the show (replete with an ootraygeeyoos aczent) is his mother. Shades of Norman Bates perhaps? The movie doesn’t really explain Hilditch’s relationship with his presumably dead mother. She is smothering and embarrassing, but not inordinately so. Apparently in the book upon which Felicia’s Journey is based, she has an incestuous relationship with her son. That is never intimated in the film though, a mistake I think. As a result, I was unconvinced by the reductive notion that her excess mothering tainted Hilditch’s worldview to the extent that he regards all women as young lambs to be reared and slaughtered.
Yep, the cat’s out of the bag–Hilditch is a serial killer. The film reveals this fairly early on, and I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise. Hilditch’s modus operandi is to pick up young woman in his car and have a chat with them, all the while secretly videotaping them. At some point, he poisons them and disposes of them. We don’t quite know all of this information yet when Felicia first meets him by the side of the road, but it isn’t long before we suspect that is his plan for her. Egoyan continually works against expectations, though. He could have used our foreknowledge to build suspense in the classic voyeuristic fashion. Where most films give their viewers the vicarious thrill of the stalking, Felicia’s Journey pulls back and burrows further into each character’s psychology. At the expense of excitement, the result is a film that lingers and broods. Hilditch delays dispatching Felicia: he first convinces her to have an abortion (his perverse logic prohibits him from killing an unborn). Then he tempts fate several times by taking Felicia to place where Johnny is likely to show up. Is he getting a thrill from this play or is he unsure of his own motives? More likely the latter, as it is revealed in a bizarre ending that Hilditch is just a lonely, lonely guy.
The Big Picture
Felicia’s Journey is essentially a two-character story. The supporting cast is largely expository or reflective of the inner turmoil of the protagonists. Hilditch’s mother fixation feels even less psychologically sound that Bates’ in Psycho (remember the clunky “explanation” scene at the end of Hitchcock’s film?). Combined with the unremitting seriousness of this movie, I was left with the vague dissatisfaction of promise unfulfilled. I expected a deeper psychological bond between Felicia and Hilditch beyond the two being lost souls seeking asylum from their parents. The movie is weighed down by its pretensions. If Egoyan is not going to give us a thriller, he should at least take us somewhere more interesting than Hilditch succumbing to his own horror at his deeds. The manner by which this self-realization is extracted from him is fake too, as a religious proselytizer (Claire Benedict) niggles with him over his sins.
The best things about Felicia’s Journey are the performances and the superb widescreen mise-en-scene. Egoyan is not a master of montage; his scenes run a little long, and he relies on the objects populating his frames to the story. Normally you would associate widescreen with sweeping vistas but the equally lush interiors of Hilditch’s den are more than up to the task of filling the screen. As Hilditch, Bob Hoskins is sublime. Outwardly affable, he seems like a pudgy teddy bear to an outside observer. His inner demons dance in his eyes though, and when he is finally allowed some actorly emoting in the end, he has earned the release. Elaine Cassidy’s Felicia is more impenetrable. She is unaware of her own beauty and casts her looks down much of the time. Her potent naïveté is believable and connected with me. As serial killer movies go this year, it’s better than The Minus Man or The Bone Collector, but a far cry from earlier nineties masterpieces like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.
© November 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Artisan Pictures, Inc.
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