Be wary of the civilized monster

Review: A teen-ager and a middle-aged man keep crossing paths in the hold-your-breath `Felicia's Journey.' Bob Hoskins is his usual great.

November 24, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Compulsion, self-deception and the slippery nature of evil are explored with fidelity and supreme control in "Felicia's Journey," Atom Egoyan's adaptation of the William Trevor novel. Less interested in the graphics of murder than in its complex underpinnings, this movie rescues the Gothic genre from the clutches of sadism and misogyny and returns it to the mystery and compulsion that lie at its core.

Like all great horror stories, "Felicia's Journey" begins on a quotidian note, with a middle-class Englishman named Mr. Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) preparing dinner in his pristinely preserved 1950s kitchen. In fact, as an elegant opening tracking shot shows us, Hilditch's entire house seems to have been sealed since 1955. The gentleman, who turns out to be a catering manager at a factory in Birmingham, is clearly dedicated to carrying on the courtly values of a time long gone by.

"Food must be served by caring hands," Hilditch admonishes a food vending machine salesman early in the film. He sends the visitor away, but he keeps the plastic model of a customer like some sort of talisman. Hilditch is a collector of people, as will be made creepily evident when he meets the film's title character.

Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), a 17-year old girl from a tiny Irish town, has arrived in Birmingham to find her boyfriend Johnny, who left without giving her his address. In a series of well-orchestrated flashbacks, the nature of Johnny's feelings toward Felicia are painfully evident, but she is convinced that his elusiveness is just a misunderstanding.

In a thin blue dress, teetering on torturously high platform heels, Felicia is stumbling through the city's bleak industrial district when Hilditch stops to give her directions. That chance meeting will prove fateful for the young girl, whose relationship with the friendly stranger will ultimately take a ghastly turn.

Egoyan has mounted a handsome production to bring Trevor's book to the screen, and his deliberate filming style is ideally suited to the film's slow revealing of its characters and their motivations. The director has taken a major liberty in creating a new character, Hilditch's mother (played by Egoyan's wife, Arsinee Khanjian), a television cooking teacher whose videotapes Hilditch watches -- and follows -- every night in his ambered childhood home. The invention works here, providing an extra layer of reality through which Hilditch constructs his world, whose fictions will ultimately be shattered by the naive Irish teen-ager.

Although Egoyan brings a characteristic sense of place to "Felicia's Journey," filming Midlands England brickscapes with slow, pendular camera movements, the film is essentially a chamber piece in which Hilditch and Felicia approach and retreat from each other on their way to a cataclysmic final meeting.

Cassidy delivers a wary, intelligent performance as a character whose intelligence gives way to a deeper need to believe. For Hoskins, "Felicia's Journey" is nothing less than a triumph of the subtlety and humanity that he brings to every role he plays. Few actors could make Hilditch's monstrous qualities even faintly understandable; it's difficult to imagine anyone being able to make him sympathetic.

This Hoskins does, with restraint and not a whiff of actorly manipulation. To its everlasting credit "Felicia's Journey" stays true to its title, with Egoyan remaining firmly focused on a young woman's transcendence and eventual coming to wisdom. But it's Hoskins' mild-mannered Hilditch who will continue to haunt film-goers, just like the great Gothic villains of yore.

`Felicia's Journey'

Starring Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy, Arsinee Khanjian

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Rated PG-13 (mature thematic elements and related disturbing images)

Running time 116 minutes

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Sun score ****

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Excellent: ****; Good: ***; Fair **; Poor: *

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