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Felicia’s Journey

By Atom Egoyan

Although an avid reader and admirer of William Trevor’s short stories, I have not read his novel Felicia’s Journey, upon which Atom Egoyan’s latest film is based, so that scotches any book/movie comparisons from the outset. The cinematic adaptation is essentially a two-hander between Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), a naive seventeen year old girl from a small town in Ireland, who crosses the Irish Sea to find the boy who has seduced her, and tell him she is pregnant with his child, and Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), the seemingly mild-mannered catering supervisor who is gradually revealed as a serial killer preying on runaway girls, who befriends her when she arrives in Birmingham.




Support comes from Arsinee Khanjian as Hilditch’s mother Gala, an extraordinarily glamorous French chef who only appears on the videotapes of her ancient television cookery programme that her now middle-aged son watches as he prepares his evening meals, meticulously following her recipes; Peter McDonald as Johnny Lysaght, the cad who unknowingly leaves Felicia pregnant, telling her he has gone to work as a labourer in a lawnmower factory in Birmingham, and then never writing or sending her his address; Gerard McSorley as Felicia’s father, a man with long ingrained Republican sympathies who turns his back on his pregnant daughter when he hears talk of how young Johnny has betrayed his country by joining the British Army; and Claire Benedict as Miss Calligary, a tireless door-to-door fundamentalist preacher who brings Felicia to a ‘gathering house’ for an evening meal and bed for the night, from which the girl is subsequently ejected by the believers, when she discovers that her money is missing and they are outraged at the suggestion that one of them might have robbed it. (It was actually stolen by Hilditch, to increase Felicia’s dependency on him.) She turns up again for the film’s climactic scene, when she comes calling to Hilditch’s house, and finds him digging a large, deep hole in his garden, a final resting place for Felicia, who lies in a drugged slumber in an upstairs bedroom.
As both Trevor and Egoyan have commented, what links Hilditch and Felicia (he tells her she means more to him than any of his other victims), is that although the film is set in the present day, they are both quite old fashioned characters, out of place in the modern world. Hilditch is suspended in the ‘50s, from his house and furnishings to his Morris Minor and his evening meals. Felicia is also from another time, since the Catholic nationalism of her family upbringing is increasingly atypical. We see other young women from her village, but they’re more confident and sophisticated compared with her. So she is a prime target to be gulled by Johnny when he tells her she’s beautiful and he loves her, and even more so in not recognising that Hilditch’s helpful attentions might not be for the purest of motives.
What Egoyan has added to Trevor’s tale is that recurring preoccupation of his own work, namely the effects of technology - specifically film and video surveillance, recording and playback - on human interaction, or lack of it. Apart from the tapes of his mother’s show, in which he is occasionally glimpsed as a chubby schoolboy, Hilditch has a hidden camera in his car, and records all his conversations with the girls he picks up, the tapes building into a bizarre video library. We see him labelling the cassette of his encounters with Felicia ‘Irish Eyes’. “For him, video is almost more real than reality itself,” Egoyan has said. Thus, the voyeurism-as-metaphor-for-the-observer-status-of-the-artist motif, as intrinsic even to the experience of cinema-going and film-making itself, is extended from its previous explorations in the likes of The Adjuster and Exotica. The possibilities opened up for non-linear exposition and storytelling, through skilful use of flashback, is also immensely fruitful.
Criticisms I’ve heard of this movie complain that it is too distant, and is not particularised enough to be engaging. But hell, that’s what they said about The Truman Show, one of the films of the decade. There is a necessary distance imposed by drawing attention to the technological means of production, a distance which functions as another metaphor, this time for the distorted and distorting workings of memory itself. The mind naturally floats back and forth through different experiences as they relate to present circumstances, making them feel by turns so far away and so close, so it is completely organic to structure a film in this way.
Besides, such is the strength of the two central performances, that we do enter into their characters’ interior lives, rather than just watching them from the outside. The relatively inexperienced Elaine Cassidy is superb at conveying what goes on in a young woman’s mind as she experiences first love and deals with the confusion and irrationality of her torn emotions, while veteran Bob Hoskins, in his most accomplished piece of work since Mona Lisa, is peerless in what is perhaps an even more difficult role, that of a ‘nice’ psycho, for whom we can even feel some sympathy. Hilditch is no Patrick Bateman or Hannibal Lecter. He is silly like us. (Although Lecter is reputedly showing something of a softer side in his most recent incarnation in Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal, at least in comparison with his adversary, former victim Mason Verger. So if Anthony Hopkins’ asking price for a reprise of his role in The Silence of The Lambs is too high, perhaps Dino De Laurentis’ casting agents could come knocking on Mr Hoskins’ door. Hoskins for Hopkins, anyone?)
But I digress. In short, this fascinating twist on the fable of Beauty and the Beast comes highly recommended. Is there something is the air, or water, in Toronto, that produces directors of unique talent and vision, like David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan? I want to go there, and find out. Both, each in his own way, has achieved a style dazzling in its combination of the atavistic and the modern, the reptilian and the ‘logistical’, and has built a path by which we can access our most dangerous and monstrous drives and desires.
As for the Trevor element, I was once asked to choose between Williams Trevor and Burroughs, and found it was a decision I did not care to make. While at first glance they might seem almost antithetical, Mr Style versus Mr Cranky, the tweed jacket wearing country squire versus the trench coat clad cosmopolitan junkie, and their respective oeuvres certainly bear little resemblance to each other, perhaps the dark spirit which animates them both has its origin, and maybe even its terminus, in exactly the same place: that place we don’t want to go.

First published in Film West













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