Directed by Atom Egoyan
Written by Egoyan, based on the novel by William Trevor
With Elaine Cassidy, Bob Hoskins, Arsinée Khanjian, Sidney Cole and Peter McDonald
Distributed by Artisan Entertainment
Opens in New York on November 12th
Could even the most dedicated anti-auteurist deny Atom Egoyan his obsessions? Dysfunctional families fill both the big and small screens these days, and the blur between spectacle and reality has become a commonplace concern even in Hollywood blockbusters, but he's treated these concerns so incisively and passionately that SPEAKING PARTS, CALENDAR, EXOTICA and THE SWEET HEREAFTER rank among the past decade's most insightful depictions of life in North America. His films tell the same story over and over: a lonely man or woman, haunted by family trauma, making their way through an alienating world in search of shelter - whose warmth may only be glimpsed in video images - and solace, but mostly finding isolation, even terror. Even FELICIA'S JOURNEY and THE SWEET HEREAFTER, adapted from a Russell Banks novel, trace out the same idées fixes. For all its structural complexity, THE SWEET HEREAFTER was Egoyan's most accessible film: the sources of its characters' loss was fairly comprehensible and most of the characters themselves fairly easy to identify with. He may have undertaken the adaptation of FELICIA'S JOURNEY as a way of letting some air into his work by abandoning his Canadian settings and cast of regulars - Khanjian is the only hold-over - in order to filter his preoccupations through another artist's eyes. (Although I haven't read Trevor's novel, Egoyan's dialogue often calls to mind Harold Pinter's darkly absurdist tone and sensibility.) Regrettably, this experiment has only led him back towards the kind of chilly mannerist gloss that marked the worst aspects of his earlier films.
In a typically Egoyan manner, the story of FELICIA'S JOURNEY emerges in disorienting fits and starts. Felicia is a 17-year-old pregnant Irish girl traveling to England in search of her boyfriend Johnny (Peter McDonald), who may have joined the army. Upon arrival in Birmingham, she accepts a ride from Hilditch (Hoskins), a solitary catering manager who spends his evenings watching videos of 40-year-old TV cooking shows hosted by his mother Gala (Khanjian). He eventually takes her in, developing a fatherly interest in her search for Johnny and confusion about whether to keep the baby. However, Hilditch has some creepy habits, including surreptitiously videotaping conversations with the runaway girls whom he picks up, that suggest heÕs not the nice, harmlessly eccentric guy that he initially appears to be.
Much like Philippe Grandieux's avant-garde slasher movie SOMBRE, FELICIA'S JOURNEY conflates the fairy tale - no points for guessing the identity of the big bad wolf - and woman-in-jeopardy thriller. At worst - as when Egoyan cuts from Hoskins watching SALOME on a hospital TV monitor to the screams of his female passengers - it feels like a cheap, if elegantly made, horror movie. He puts Mychael Danna's hyperbolically cacophonous score, made to order for those of us who've wished that Bernard Herrmann and Throbbing Gristle could have collaborated, to exceedingly odd use: the kind of sinister crescendo that would build up to an axe murder in a Dario Argento film tends to lead into a simple close-up of Hoskins' face here. Yet most of Egoyan's close-ups aren't that simple: he often frames Hoskins for maximum freakishness. In a few shots, his bulging ears even look like Dr. Spock's. Although Felicia's jingoistic father treats her like a traitor for dating (and becoming impregnated by) an Englishman, the pathology of Hilditch's family seems far more elusive. Nevertheless, the home movies offer plenty of pop-psychoanalytical innuendo: the scene in which Gala instructs the boy in the art of stuffing a chicken compresses a textbook chapter's worth of Freudian imagery into 30 seconds.
While Cassidy gives a relatively naturalistic performance, Hoskins plays up Hilditch's oddball mannerisms to the hilt. Rather than the working-class thugs that Hoskins often gets typecast as, this character is an effete yet sinister gent out of the Norman Bates/PEEPING TOM school. He hasn't such a plum role in years, and he makes the most of it, creating a touching blend of childlike vulnerability, bafflement and menace. Next to such dazzling work, Cassidy's blank performance looks all the paler. Hilditch is a character with a capital "C", but Felicia seems to be have stepped into his world out of another universe. His eccentricities finally do meet their match in an evangelical Christian preacher (Sidney Cole), at whose shelter Felicia had briefly taken refuge: the two characters somehow share a manner of speaking as though everyone else understands their private obsessions and cryptic references perfectly well.
While Felicia gets the final word, she plays second fiddle to Hilditch's more enigmatic character, but the film remains too detached for his mysteries to be particularly engaging. Although Egoyan may have intended to shed new light on his usual concerns by transposing them to England, he's only taken a step into a morass of hermetic academicism. Few directors can conduct a rollercoaster ride through space and time the way he can, but all this virtuoso gamesmanship never produces anything close to the emotional force of EXOTICA's final 5 minutes. Felicia's journey ultimately leads her to a cathartic renewal; sadly, the film loses its way down the road towards one.