NYFF '99 REVIEW: "Felicia's Journey" Proves Impressive Trip
by David Bourgeois
Adding another smart, impressive film to his growing repertoire, director Atom Egoyan has brought a second, haunting novel to the screen; this time it's "Felicia's Journey," a portrait of stoic British gentleman Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), who befriends a young girl while hiding a dark secret.
Hilditch, a reclusive bachelor living in small-town England, is unable to overcome a loveless childhood and crushing loneliness. His famous mother, Gaga (Arsinée Khanjian), was a 1950s chef -- the Julia Child of her day -- who wrote numerous cookbooks and had her own television program. Her career obsession meant that she had little time for her needy, portly son.
Life today seems calm and serene for Hilditch. He spends his days as a catering supervisor who loves to dote on his appreciative, loyal employees. Although set in the present, Hilditch is hopelessly stuck in the 1950s; his house is filled with antiques from the period, he watches and bakes along with his mother's vintage television show on an old TV, and he drives a stately, vintage, British roadster.
While leaving the supermarket one day, a bewildered, winsome girl, Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), asks him for directions. The girl has left her native Ireland in search of her errant boyfriend Johnny (Peter McDonald), who is believed to have left Ireland to join the British army. She's carrying his baby, making her particularly vulnerable and in need of guidance and a kind ear.
Hilditch first betrays Felicia's trust by stealing her money, and thus the web of deception is laid. Slowly, more and more disturbing information unfolds -- and in one of the most unoriginal parts of the film, we learn that Hilditch has a plentiful collection of videotapes of about a half-dozen girls.
Throughout the entire film, it's Hoskins' brilliant, understated performance that keeps the story from becoming just another "sex, lies and videotape" kind of film about a man who can't come to grips with his sexual frustration and dysfunction. Hilditch brazenly spouts one lie after another, but because of Hoskins' extraordinary acting control, we actually forget for a moment that he's a lying murderer; we get sucked in to believing whatever spews out of his mouth.
Egoyan's direction has come a long way from the awkwardness of "The Adjuster" and the undeniable pretentiousness of "Calendar." (Funny enough, this transformation from just another pretentious director to one of great merit and ability seemed to occur once he stopped calling his films "Ego Arts Productions.") He seemed to really hit his stride with "Exotica" and has never looked back; "The Sweet Hereafter" only cemented his role as a careful, precise director. These are exactly the traits that are necessary when trying to bring a difficult novel to the screen.
Although there are many who claim this film isn't as inventive or original as "The Sweet Hereafter," that's doing the film a great disservice; it's impossible to compare the two. Likely, for political reasons, the Academy voters will totally ignore Hoskins as a candidate for Best Actor at the 1999 Oscars. It's unfortunate as his performance -- along with the film -- is one of the year's best.