Films

Starvation of the soul

Atom Egoyan’s latest is a troubling minor masterpiece

Patricia Hluchy November 15 1999
Films

Starvation of the soul

Atom Egoyan’s latest is a troubling minor masterpiece

Patricia Hluchy November 15 1999

Starvation of the soul

Films

Atom Egoyan’s latest is a troubling minor masterpiece

Felicia’s Journey

Directed by Atom Egoyan

William Trevor’s 1994 novel Felicia’s Journey is a small masterpiece of literary creepiness, a tale of deception told with exhilarating insight. Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of the Irish author’s book is a small masterpiece of cinematic creepiness, in which the perversion comes with a large measure of humanity. The tale of a guileless 17-year-old Irish girl who leaves home and falls into the hands of a Birmingham psychopath, Felicia’s Journey shows Canadian film-maker Egoyan, who both directed and wrote the screenplay, to be at the height of his powers. So much about the movie is breathtaking: the acting of Elaine Cassidy as the tide character and Bob Hoskins as the man who preys on her, Egoyan’s fleet-footed jumps between present and past, Paul Sarossy’s cinematography of a landscape blighted by industrial detritus and tangled highways, Mychael Dannas nervejangling score. The film is also laden with

evocative minor details, right down to the endearingly clunky sandals, made of wood and blue leather, worn by the hapless Felicia.

The story begins with her passage by ferry to England. Felicia is pregnant and hopes to be reunited with the baby’s father. But Johnny Lysaght is nowhere to be found. As Felicia walks through the industrial zone of Birmingham looking for the lawn-mower factory where Johnny has told her he works, she meets Joseph Hilditch (Hoskins), a pudgy, middle-aged bachelor who holds the position of catering supervisor in one of the plants Felicia visits on her doomed pilgrimage.

• Joseph is a primly aproned, platitudespouting manifestation of the banality of evil. By day, he is a satisfier of workmen’s appetites, a man whose face lights up when the factory kitchen cooks up a tolerable steamed raspberry pudding. He seems as quaint, and as safe, as his vintage forest-green Morris Minor. By night, however, Joseph pursues his sick, probably sexless, fascination with what he

calls “lost girls”—mainly prostitutes.

Or he stays at home and makes elaborate meals according to video instructions in an old cooking show featuring his now-deceased mother (Arsinée Khanjian). Embellishing on Trevors novel, Egoyan has added the detail of the gourmet-TV mom. And it is an ingenious addition. The mother is named Gala, and she is an exotic creature indeed—too exotic, in fact, to be much of a maternal figure. Flashbacks of her taping the show reveal a fabulously turned-out woman with no patience for her morose, overweight son. No wonder Joseph grows up to be obsessed with her, and with food.

With frequent cuts to Gala’s program, Egoyan explores the way video can offer a spurious sense of intimacy. And as Joseph methodically prepares a crown roast of lamb or a turkey with all the trimmings, and then dines alone by candlelight, the effect is both pathetic and terrifying. “Food must be served by caring hands,” he pronounces, rejecting a pitch from a vending-machine salesman. “It makes us feel loved.”

Hoskins is devastating in the role of Joseph, his rough-hewn face shifting from fastidious control to anguish and rage. Cassidy, despite the fact that she has been acting since the age of 5, has the naturalness of a first-time-lucky amateur. Her Felicia is a young woman of transparent emotions and few defences, but with surprising metde beneath it all.

As in Egoyan’s only other adaptation and his most recent movie, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), the director’s touch here is more emotionally direct, less contrived, than in many of his earlier features. Most astonishing about FeliciasJourney is the degree—greater than in the novel—to which it evokes compassion for Joseph. Longtime Egoyan collaborator Danna, meanwhile, has composed a score that is manipulative and obtrusive, but in all the right ways—this is strikingly original, tormented music. Felicia’s Journey emphatically is not a feel-good experience. But it is an exquisite film.

Patricia Hluchy