Felicia's Journey (1999) ***
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan; based on the novel by William Trevor. Photography, Paul Sarossy. Editing, Susan Shipton. Production design, Jim Clay. Music,Mychael Danna. Produced by Bruce Davey. Cast: Elaine Cassidy (Felicia), Bob Hoskins(Joseph Ambrose Hilditch), Claire Benedict (Miss Calligary), Brid Brennan (Mrs. Lysaght), Arsinee Khanjian (Gala), Peter McDonald (Johnny Lysaght), Gerard McSorley (Felicia's father), Danny Turner (Young Hilditch), et al Released by Artisan Entertainment. 116 minutes. PG-13
What makes Johnny and Mary run? To the movies, that is. No one really knows for sure. Market Research is an approximate non-science. With or without it a few things are obvious. The main target of Hollywood (the term is used generically) is the under 30 public. Publicity will help, hype, celebrity actors, awards, and so on.
Yet the precise influence of reviews is unfathomable. The bulk of the audience reads no reviews. The smaller but still sizable group of potential viewers who do read the critics consists of movie professionals in one way or another: aficionados, critics, film students, people who parse newspapers and magazines...
Most persons in this sub-group limit themselves to one or two reviewers, especially if the latter have built up attraction and/or trust among their readers. A major example of this was for many years the appeal of Pauline Kael in the New Yorker magazine. Another, current case, is the huge popularity of critic Roger Ebert.
But even for faithful followers, a laudatory review is often superseded by the question to end all questions : "what is the movie about?" Which may result in attending a show -- even if Ebert gave it a lukewarm rating -- or not attending, in spite of the critical praise, because the film's genre or type is unattractive.
"Felicia's Journey" is about a serial killer. That's all that may matter to John and Mary Doe, who may (mostly John) either get their kicks from such a subject or be repelled by it. But here "serial killer" is an oversimplification. We neither see nor hear violence and there is minimal "Old Dark House" scariness.
Felicia, a 17-year old from County Cork, is bereft of her boyfriend Johnny now gone to find work in England. There's no news of him, but plenty of news for him: Felicia is pregnant. She encounters hostility from her own, widowed father, and from Johnny's mother.
As the story is told in bits and pieces --and crucial, skillful flashbacks--Felicia thinks that Johnny is working in a lawn mower factory in Birmingham, the Midlands. In fact he has enlisted in the British Army. This is a betrayal of his Irishness, one of several in the story. Felicia's father, a fanatical Irish nationalist, betrays his daughter who, according to him, has also betrayed her country. "You're carrying the enemy within you." Johnny's mother cheats by not forwarding Felicia's letters. And there's more to come.
The very naive girl sets on a journey to find her lover. She crosses the sea, reaches the industral Midlands, is confused, and in a chance encounter meets Joseph Ambrose Hilditch, who offers to help her.
Hilditch is an amiable, plumpish quinquagenerian who manages the food services of a large factory. He is respected by his admiring staff for his culinary judgments. He is, in fact, nothing short of a gourmet, and in the oddest of places. Since in spite of the Michelin Guide's stars, the UK is not exactly a haven of gastronomy, Hilditch is a multiple oddity in his profession and his private life. He is aloner without any public life outside the factory.
Hilditch lives alone in a large house whose innards and decor mix Victorian, Edwardian, and 1950s styles. You expect antimacassars, hand-wound granfather clocks, samplers on the walls, aspidistras. But what catches your eye is the man's huge kitchen, his large array of old but functioning culinary tools, his antique Mixmaster, his kitchen video set. Also his collection of popular, Mantovani-style LPs of the 50s era. Outside the house, the past is symbolized by Hilditch's old-fashioned suits and his small, old British Morris car, a kind of VW or Fiat Topolino.
The past and haute cuisine meld as Hilditch obsessively watches tapes from way back, tapes of Gala's cooking programs on TV. He follows her instructions and prepares refined dishes for just himself.
Gala, a Frenchwoman-in-England (played by director Egoyan's wife Arsinee Khanjian) was a great favorite of the public when Hilditch was a child. Her appearances, cajoling and imperious, are like a subtle take-off on such programs. And a young Hilditch shows up in them. Gala was his mother.
Which goes a long way in explaining (or does it?) that Mother-Smother is at the root (or a catalyst?) of chidhood traumas which turned Hilditch into a serial killer. (The film has sensibly eliminated the sexual mother-son element). He has, over the years, "helped" a number of women with problems (e.g. runaways or prostitutes); he has, in these days of electronics, recorded them and their talks on tape. But there are no images of the actual murders. Felicia, that other loner, is next in line, but...
Of Armenian descent, Atom Egoyan was born in Cairo, grew up in Canada, and is one of most prominent filmmakers of that country as well as the world. This, his eighth feature, contains many of his themes and preoccupations, is more concentrated than usual, avoids arty pitfalls, and is essentially a character-driven psychological two-hander. Beautifully and intelligently shot and edited, in both literal and symbolic ways, it is refined. Ireland is a feast for the eyes, yet cruel towards Felicia. Birmingham is cold and miserable, yet, ambiguously, what warmth there is comes from a killer.
The movie is much closer to Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast tales and very far from Vlad the Impaler. Hilditch is, in odd fashion (the key words for this film) likable and pitiful. He is superlatively well acted by Hoskins who has said that his character was a cross between Winnie the Pooh and Jack the Ripper. A not-so-obvious originality in the film -- for visual reasons--was his casting. Rotund and/or short killers in movies are the exception and to a lesser degree this applies to plain villains too, to whom it is easier to give a lean and hungry look. Of course this is not an inflexible rule, especially when one thinks of Fat Man Sydney Greenstreet in "The Maltese Falcon," or Laird Cregar as the main suspect in the Jack the Ripper melodrama "The Lodger" (1944)
The story-telling is both simple and complex. It evokes sympathy for Felicia's misery and her naive pluckiness. It is balancing act between sad empathy and alienation for Hilditch. Additionally, it handles the dangerous trick of having some un-jarring black humor. What do you expect from a movie featuring a Miss Calligary?