Felicia’s Journey (1999)

UK, Canada / 116 minutes / color / Marquis, Alliance Atlantis, Screenventures XLIII, TMN, Artisan, Icon Dir & Scr: Atom Egoyan Pr: Bruce Davey Story: Felicia’s Journey (1994) by William Trevor Cine: Paul Sarossy Cast: Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy, Claire Benedict, Brid Brennan, Peter McDonald, Gerard McSorley, Arsinée Khanjian, Danny Turner, Maire Stafford, Julie Cox.

In a small Cork town, Felicia (Cassidy) falls in love with Johnny Lysaght (McDonald). After he leaves to go back to his job at a lawnmower factory in the English Midlands, she discovers she’s pregnant. Her widowed father (McSorley) is horrified—not just by the pregnancy but because rumors are rife in the town that Johnny is no lawnmower maker but has gone over to the enemy by joining the British Army. Felicia tries to get Johnny’s address from his mother, but Mrs. Lysaght (Brennan) refuses to divulge it, and burns the letters that Felicia gives her to mail to Johnny.

Felicia's Journey - 1 Felicia (Cassidy) at home in Cork

Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) at home in Cork.

So Felicia steals money from her aged great-grandmother (Stafford) and heads for England. Searching in and around Birmingham, she’s unable to find Johnny—or even a lawnmower factory. She is, however, befriended by unctuous elderly canning-factory catering manager Mr. (Joe) Hilditch (Hoskins).

It soon becomes obvious to us that Mr. Hilditch is much other than he seems. He lies to Felicia that he’s married; then shams bereavement. Clearly, although pretending to do all he can to help her find Johnny, giving her lifts here and there in his little green Morris Minor 1000, he’s making sure she never will—in fact, he locates Johnny at a nearby barracks, but keeps the information from her. Finally he manipulates her into having an abortion and, as she’s recovering in his home later, tells her what we as audience have already been told: that she’s just the latest in a succession of young women whom he’s maneuvered into a dependency on him, then murdered when they’ve tried to break free.

Felicia's Journey - 3 Mr. Hilditch (Hoskins) feigns concern for the nonexistent Ada

Mr. Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) feigns concern for the nonexistent Ada.

Egoyan strips Trevor’s novel down, wisely discarding some of its more labored plot digressions. There are disadvantages as well as benefits to this, though. One is that the richly created character of Mr. Hilditch in the novel becomes something rather more ordinary; Hoskins does a fine job, but he has rather less to get his teeth into than he might have had. Another loss is that the character of Miss Calligary (Benedict, in sterling form) is reduced to a minor supporting role. She’s a Jamaican evangelizer who goes from door to door trying to recruit souls for Jesus; for a time her group, The Gathering, give shelter to Felicia, but they turn against her when she discovers her cash has been stolen from her backpack. In the novel, Miss Calligary becomes a sort of avenging angel, hounding Mr. Hilditch in the months after Felicia has gone missing, perhaps dead; here there’s no room for that.

Felicia's Journey - 4 Miss Calligary (Benedict) makes one last attempt to save Mr H

Miss Calligary (Claire Benedict, in great form) makes one last attempt to save Mr Hilditch.

There is, however, room for a newly invented backstory for Mr. Hilditch. His hobby is cooking elaborate banquets for himself following the instructions, on old black-and-white videotapes, of his long-dead mother, Gala (Khanjian, in fine form), a celebrated TV chef. In flashbacks we see how Gala completely steamrollered her fat young son Joey (Turner), whom she treated as a cross between a pet pekinese and a studio accessory. In a neat game of contrasts, these flashbacks are done in garish false color, the farthest possible extreme from the grainy black-and-white of the videotapes.

Felicia's Journey - 2 Mr. Hilditch recalls his mother, TV chef Gala (Khanjian)

How Mr. Hilditch recalls his mother, TV chef Gala (Arsinée Khanjian).

Egoyan and cinematographer Sarossy have a ball with the industrial landscapes of the Midlands, producing panorama after panorama of giant, dehumanizing factories rearing out of drab, wearied, dirty-green, seemingly dying countryside. Again there’s a contrast, this time with Felicia’s age-hallowed Cork hometown and its surrounds, with its fields lushly green and the ruins of history seemingly complementing the land rather than being forcibly imposed upon it. (The soundtrack, regrettably, defaults to portentous, self-consciously Irish music during these sequences. There’s nothing wrong with the music itself—think Loreena McKennitt or Maire Brennan—but the repeated juxtaposition soon becomes tiresomely trite.)

Felicia's Journey - 6 industrial landscape 1

Felicia's Journey - 7 industrial landscape 2

There’s some great footage of the industrial landscape.

Cinematography and direction are expertly married elsewhere, too. There’s a splendid moment toward the end when, after Mr. Hilditch has gotten rid of Miss Calligary and her equally bliss-saturated evangelizing sidekick Marcia Tibbits (Cox), telling them, “I am lonely in my house. Often,” he comes back inside that house and we see how true those words are. The portrait of Gala dominates his front room just as the woman herself dominated his youthful years. All his possessions now seem less like comforts than jailers. The shafts of sunlight through doors and windows are like those through a prison’s bars. Behind the congenial facade he presents at the factory where he works, he has made his life empty, and he is at last—just as we are—realizing the full force of that emptiness.

Moments later, he finds Felicia struggling to get the back door open and, rather than trying to stop her, he undoes the chain for her. As she slips away it’s like two lovers parting, knowing their affair is over but regretting that it didn’t turn out differently.

Felicia's Journey - 5 Mr H (Hoskins) powerless in the face of agressive prayer

Mr Hilditch (Hoskins), powerless in the face of aggressive prayer.

What holds the movie together is Cassidy’s portrayal of the young Irish innocent abroad. While Hoskins’s character is clearly the focal point, the generally submissive Felicia seems to be the medium upon which the tale is being written. Cassidy conveys this through a wonderful restraint. We come to identify entirely with Felicia’s sense of loss and bewilderment and impotence to fight back against circumstance.

I posted some brief notes on Goodreads about the novel shortly after I read it.

Felicia's Journey - 8 a pause at Birmingham's famed Bartons Arms

A pause at Birmingham’s famed Bartons Arms — a nostalgic moment for expatriate Brits!

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On Amazon.com: Felicia’s Journey.

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3 thoughts on “Felicia’s Journey (1999)

  1. This is an impressively filmed psychological thriller that boasts some very fine performances, though it probably isn’t as textured as a few of Egoyan’s other works. His masterpiece remains THE SWEET HEREAFTER. You have collared this one superbly, and even come armed with a reading of the novel, which affords your readers with further enlightenment. Cassidy does indeed deliver the goods here.

    • I suppose I ought to go watch a few of Egoyan’s other movies — he’s not a director I normally go too much out of my way for, and that may be my loss. What I think has stuck with me about Felicia’s Journey, aside from the great performances of Benedict and Cassidy, is the very Britishness of it all. Mr. Hilditch is in so many ways a genuinely nice, non-assertive guy; he just has this, y’know, bad habit. In this sense — if in no other — he reminded me of the very different serial killer Dennis Nilsen.

      I thought Egoyan’s major original contribution to the tale, Gala, was inspired.

  2. Pingback: Impulsos (2002) | Noirish

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