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Felicia’s Journey

Once More, With Feeling

By Roy Rodenstein

Staff Writer

1999, 1 hr 56 min

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Written by William Trevor, Atom Egoyan

With Elaine Cassidy, Bob Hoskins, ArsinÉe Khanjian, Danny Turner, Gerard McSorley, Peter McDonald, Claire Benedict

Two years have gone by since 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, and the hour is ripe for a profound new enigma from director Atom Egoyan. While most of his early career was spent directing his own scripts, Egoyan’s latest is another adaptation, this time of Irish writer William Trevor’s novel Felicia’s Journey. Egoyan often begins with a complex story and slowly unravels it, but this time the film takes the opposite tack to great effect.

Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) is an Irish Catholic girl, living under the watchful eye of her father due to her relationship with Johnny, rumored in the community to have defected to the British Army. Johnny promised he’d write from England, but now Felicia is pregnant and alone, and Johnny hasn’t kept his promise. Thus begins her journey, by boat to England, to find the lover she still believes in. Sounds conventional, doesn’t it?

Next we meet Mr. Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), the contented director of a food manufacturing business. Hilditch’s employees follow him around the plant, offering him a taste of their latest batch of pudding for his expert taste-testing. Soon the two distinct story lines approach, bob hesitantly around each other and finally embrace.

The most fascinating aspect of Felicia’s Journey is its pacing. The early encounters between Felicia and Hilditch are eerily casual. Eventually their meetings change in character and the movie talks of unhealthy relationsips instead of pudding, and all the while it feels like a natural sequence of events rather than a plot-driven twist.

Similarly, the transformation of Hilditch from amusing pudding-taster to highly eccentric cook to a less warm-and-fuzzy characterization is a triumph. Even as frightful layers cover Hilditch, his previous, humane facets are always evident. Bob Hoskins is mesmerizing, serene and nuanced throughout his characters’ evolution, a worthy performance to follow Ian Holm’s in The Sweet Hereafter.

Other good performances abound. Elaine Cassidy’s Felicia is vulnerable and trusting enough to make the archetypically innocent character believable -- not an easy task. Gerard McSorley, as Felicia’s rock-steady father, is affecting in a limited role. Claire Benedict, as well, contributes as an over-the-top missionary, another success in a role that would otherwise have destroyed the movie’s greatest asset: its calmly turbid, believable mood.

There are undeveloped characters, however, most regrettably Johnny, whose throwaway clichÉ characterization clashes with the richness of the other players. Rounding out the cast are Egoyan regular and wife ArsinÉe Khanjian, and Danny Turner as Young Hilditch, who play well off each other in several delightfully macabre sequences.

Egoyan’s directorial staples are in full force. While his fractured timelines are by now famous, here Egoyan uses mostly simple flashbacks as well as illuminating layered ones, departing farther and farther back in time within a single sequence before returning to the present. Even the linear sequences gain great context later on. While early scenes of Hilditch enjoying a well-stocked supermarket and following a cooking show to the letter are flat-out hilarious, later they may not appear as funny. This does not mean the audience was wrong to laugh in the beginning -- it is the film’s design to show the power of hindsight, and how often things might look differently if we knew the whole story. Also in typical Egoyan fashion is the use of home video in a limited but key role.

Other aspects of the film are enriching as well. The soundtrack matches the film’s atmosphere, serene and unnerving at the same time. The cinematography is so enthralling, with clear shots of chilly, isolating industrial suburbia, that I occasionally found myself enjoying the film as a static picture, finally remembering to look for the character within the expanse. Humor about modern life is also present, dripping with sarcasm, as when Hilditch explains to a contractor that he much prefers to be served fresh pudding by his adoring employees than to get portions from a sterile silver-plated vending machine.

Beyond the few flat characters and perhaps one unnecessary scene, the major shortcoming of Felicia’s Journey is that in spite of great acting the story has only one truly original character. He’s one fiercely complex character, though, and Felicia’s Journey remains deeply affecting long after viewing.