We meet again.
Based on the novel by William Trevor comes Atom Egoyan's (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) film version of Felicia's Journey.
Bob Hoskins (Nixon, Hook, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) stars as Joseph Hilditch, a catering manager for an industrial plant in Birmingham, England. Hilditch is a lonely man. A man who longs for contact and human affection. A man who lives in a large house with a huge, almost garish kitchen. It is a kitchen where he slaves, making immense meals, following in almost rapt devotion to video tapes of a BBC cooking show featuring a French chef named Gala. Immense meals that he consumes alone.
Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) is a 19-year-old Irish girl who has crossed into England to try and find her lover, Johnny. Johnny had told her he was coming to Birmingham to work in a lawn mower factory but left without giving Felicia his address. Disowned from her family because she is carrying Johnny's child and because Felicia's father thinks Johnny has joined the British Army, Felicia has come in search of the one person who ever called her pretty. The only person who, she feels, truly understands her.
To help soothe his feelings of longing, Hilditch has taken to helping various girls over the years, girls who have come to depend and trust him. Girls who, eventually, outgrow his affections and want to move on. So in the end, no matter how far he has gone to help and soothe, Hilditch is always alone.
Fate, of course, brings these two people together. Two people so very alone in so many different ways. Each only wanting somebody to talk to, somebody to understand their needs and desires. Someone to care about and give comfort to.
Once events bring these two together, the film slowly begins to show its hand. Events that I will not spoil here. To truly be surprised and sucked in, I would stop reading here. If you are someone who enjoys a well written suspense thriller with something to say, trust me, either rent or purchase Felicia's Journey. In the upcoming sections I plan on being careful with plot details but I cannot guarantee a spoiler free zone. Read further at your own risk.
Felicia's Journey, simply put, is one of the most profoundly disturbing films I have seen in recent memory. As an exploration of evil that lurks in the most mundane places, it is one of those movies that stays in the memory and refuses to go away. It is a film that requires the viewer to pay attention and wait for its true face to unmask itself.
With Felicia's Journey Writer/Director Atom Egoyan is up to his usual bag of nonlinear story telling tricks. Flashbacks that spin into further flashbacks, which in turn cut quickly back to the present are skillfully used to show who both characters are and how they arrived in each others company. Egoyan builds upon a narrative style that maintains confusion but always has focus and pushes towards a climax that some may feel is forced but made perfect sense to me. It is in this kind of material that Egoyan shines. He is a masterful director and Felicia's Journey is another bright feather in an already impressive cap.
Looking deeper, you will find this film is about two people running away from and trying to find family. Hilditch is obsessed by his mother who, as it turns out, was the chef in the BBC cooking show. The house is a shrine to her and on a daily basis Hilditch tries to connect to her memory. Unable to relate with anyone on a personal level, Hilditch is so blind to his own pain that he does not even know it exists. He is a man who is proud of his station in life and of his place within his company. Capable of great kindness, he gives willingly until his girls no longer need him and choose to move on. It is a choice that Hilditch knows will come and with their choice, comes his own. Yet for all that, Hilditch is a man totally devoid of feeling. He is a careful, simple liar who is almost childlike in his evil.
Always reminded of the past and what it means to be Irish, Felicia runs away from a father who is so caught up in his own rhetoric that he is unable to see his daughter as a human being. A sheltered girl who is even younger than her years in naïveté, she is nothing but feeling. Lost and alone, a true stranger in a strange land, she makes a perfect target for the predator in Hilditch.
In what is basically a two person film, Hoskins and Cassidy make for a powerful duo. Cassidy is open innocence and love personified while Hoskins is closed darkness and misery.
With a significant body of work behind him, Hoskins throws all we think we know of him out the window. Usually an actor who draws audiences in with his open style of performing, here Hoskins has shut the windows to his thoughts and motivations. His reserve, his quiet cunning and his simplicity are what make Hilditch dangerous and haunting.
Both actors are simple in their approach and their work helps build the tension and the mood of the film. The only other real supporting character in the film is Egoyan's frequent collaborator, not to mention his wife, Arsinee Khanjian (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica, Irma Vep). This time Khanjian is Gala, Hilditch's mother and the star of the old BBC cooking show that Hilditch is so drawn to. Egoyan shows her in two flashback methods. In the first it is the grainy black and white images of the old videos and the second is in the over-saturated colors of Hilditch's memories. Memories that may or may not be real. While not as introverted as the two leads, Khanjian offers up strong work. Because of her place in the film her performance needs to be a little broader. It is sometimes quite jarring, which I suppose, was the desired effect.
Upon some further reflection, I suppose the film does have another supporting player and it would be Mychael Danna's atonal score. Using his composer the way Hitchcock often did with Bernard Hermann, Egoyan has another valuable tool in building mood, character and tension. Danna contributes a score that is like the film itself. Quiet and reserved, only showing its hand when it has to, building to a climax that is rooted in all that has come before. It is solid work and one of the best scores of 1999.
In what could be easily labeled as a true special edition, Artisan has done a spectacular job on Felicia's Journey. From the well designed and stylish menus, which is turning into an Artisan calling card, to the feature laden package and of course, top flight image and sound, Artisan is delivering the goods.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been given an anamorphic transfer. In what must have been a difficult film to present, Artisan has done a wonderful job. Colors are dead-on solid, appearing natural and warm. With not a trace of edge enhancement, everything looks real with great depth and detail. Blacks and shadows are also solid with tremendous clarity and focus. No shimmer or bleed marred the image and the print itself is in perfect condition.
In what was the biggest surprise to me of the disc, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is very aggressive. Surrounds are used often and to great effect. They conjure up a real sense of space and often, of danger. Dialogue, music and directional effects are all well-balanced and clear, making this one of the best, indeed one of the most creative examples I have yet heard of 5.1.
For a film that was fairly quiet at the box office, Artisan has loaded on the extras. First up is a scene specific commentary from Atom Egoyan. Egoyan is clearly well prepared and very informative. While sometimes rather dry, his discussion is quite enlightening. Never pretentious or patronizing, he relates his approach to the material and what his thoughts were on specific scenes and motivations. Its a good track and well worth the invested time.
Additional scenes include the entire taping of Hilditch and his girls in the car. Even when taken out of context of the movie, the video clips have a haunting voyeuristic quality to them that manages to linger in the memory. Also in the mix is a short but informative featurette on the making of the film as well as interview segments with Egoyan, Hoskins and Cassidy. The supplements also give us the filming of the cooking series as it was performed in the film studio and then as it appeared in the final film. In addition to that, the recipes themselves are there for the home chef to take a crack at.
In a nice touch, both the American and Canadian theatrical trailers are shown. I must say I prefer the great white north one to the domestic trailer and both, happily, are relatively spoiler free for the first time viewer. Finally, in yet another feature that I always look forward to, is an isolated music track of Mychael Danna's wonderful score. All in all, a very solid effort from Artisan for one of the most underrated films of the last year.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have many complaints about this release. My biggest gripe isn't with the film itself but with Artisan and the way they sometimes label their product. With a commentary track, additional scenes, multiple trailers, extensive production notes, cast and crew interviews, a decent featurette and recipes (!), Felicia's Journey is a special edition if ever I saw one. On top of all that the disc has a separate music track that is not even mentioned anywhere on the packaging!
In the crowded field of DVD's I cannot help but wonder why some good old self-promotion was not done to make this very worthy release stand out. While I appreciate self-restraint, Artisan, at least to my mind, is missing the boat. This is a small, gutsy company doing, for the most part, outstanding work. I wish they would take the time and let people know they are getting something that is indeed, quite special.
As a film, Felicia's Journey is quite disturbing and will not be for everyone. I'm sure there are some who will have problems with the climax of the film as it does seem, at first, to come somewhere out of left field. Many may also take offense with the way Felicia's Journey humanizes a character that most would call a monster. To me it is this human factor that makes the character so real and so close to home. No Silence of The Lambs-style theatrics here. This is a killer who is quiet and humble about his life and what he does behind shaded windows. He could very well live next door to any of us and that, is what makes him so scary. As such this is not going to be a film for someone looking for a couple of hours of light entertainment. It is heavy, provocative material that demands careful thought and attention. Another final note of complaint. While it is great having the movie with three audio tracks, there is no foreign language track and no subtitles for the hearing impaired. While I don't find the lack of an alternate language track to be a big deal, others may. The subtitles are another story. Film should be able to enjoyed by everyone and that includes the deaf or hearing impaired. So I would hope that in the future Artisan is more sensitive to those needs.
Felicia's Journey is a thriller for the thinking film viewer and for being such I cannot recommend it enough. It is a marvelous film given great treatment by Artisan for its home video release. This will proudly sit on the shelf with other recent Artisan discs such as The Minus Man, The Limey and Stir of Echoes. Do yourself a favor: stop reading this, go to your favorite online retailer, and order Felicia's Journey right now. Just make sure you watch it with the lights on and please, don't take rides from kindly-looking strangers.
As always, I welcome reader thoughts on this or any other disc via email. Simply click on my name at the top of this review and fire away!
Everyone on Felicia's Journey is acquitted of all charges. Special mention from the court goes out to Bob Hoskins for some truly memorable work. Artisan is also thanked for a wonderful disc and hopes from the court for some better self promotion next time. Case dismissed.
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