A Film by Atom Egoyan
The new movie from Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan is well-made and boasts an outstanding performance by Bob Hoskins, but a weak story full of clichés makes it a disappointing addition to his generally very interesting body of work. In what seems to be an attempt to cross-over to a mainstream audience in the wake of his well-received The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan has sacrificed the highly idiosyncratic narrative style and flourishes of unexpected and imaginative imagery that made his early films such a refreshing break from the stale conventions of film-making.
In earlier films, including Family Ties, Speaking Parts, The Adjustor and Calendar, and in a less confrontational and jarring fashion in his more recent Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan has toyed with audience expectations and notions of narrative development. His quirky, mosaic presentation of events - often with no clues as to how they fit in sequence with other events - and his seamless blending of the surreal and realistic elements invite the audiences' active engagement with the story.
His ability to present scenes that seem to mean one thing, only later revealing that they mean something completely different not only presents the characters in a more three-dimensional way (since we see them first through our expectations and then with gradually deepening understanding as more is revealed), but challenges our fundamental notions of how we perceive reality.
Yet he does it in a gentle, thoughtful way. Often his refusal to judge his characters can almost seem like amorality. What it actually is, rather, is the unblinking eye of the camera, unabashedly exploring "reality" in a way that simply reveals; judgements are left up to the viewer. In his best films he gets far away from the manipulative sentimentality of standard film-fare, to insights that last well beyond the accustomed half-hour of "feel-good" hangover so many films work so hard to generate.
Some of this is apparent in Felicia's Journey. Working from a story by someone else (in this case a novel by William Trevor) - as he has in his last two films - Egoyan has tried to recast it with his own sensibility. Unfortunately, his treatment of the characters and situations he has to work with within the confines of his material doesnt really provide him with the flexibility to get far off the well-beaten path.
The story - in a kind of "high-concept" description that would be almost impossible to generate for his earlier films - is a cross between The Collector (from the John Fowles novel of the same name) and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Egoyan manages to milk a great deal of suspense from the "is he or isn't he?" / "will he get away with it or won't he?" situation the story sets up. But in the end, although the plot twists are many and the characters interesting, the story becomes so contrived and cliché-ridden that it is hard not to lose interest.
Bob Hoskins once again proves himself a first-rank actor, with a performance that brings a rather poorly-drawn, stereotypical character-type to some semblance of life and provides whatever real emotional impact the film contains. Hoskins' Joseph Hilditch has all the little ticks and idiosyncrasies of a real human being - neither exaggeratedly flawed nor unconvincingly perfect. Hoskins can almost make us believe in the "monster" - not as a Norman Bates hobgoblin, but as the ordinary-seeming citizen next door he usually turns out to be.
What lets Hoskins down is a story that relies on the most absurd kind of Freudian reductionism - the overweight child-Joey was humiliated by his successful, celebrity single mother - to "explain" his monstrosity. It does so in a short-hand way that completely fails to make an emotionally-compelling case for why that should be so, content to produce evidence of his humiliation as if the leap from that to serial murder followed some ineevitable logic.
Serial killers are probably not very interesting people - if only because they are so de-sensitized to emotion by their crimes (and whatever brought them to those crimes) that there is no real point of human contact available. They are useful as jack-in-the-box bogeymen in teen horror films but their reality is at once too repugnant and too banal to make an engaging story.
In addition, the plot of this film is so full of holes that even a moment's reflection is enough to jar one out of whatever level of suspension of disbelief Hoskins' marvelous performance manages to induce. The device of the religious cultists who first rescue Felicia, then turn her out - and send her back into Joe's clutches - and then turn up again at the critical moment in Joe's plan, disrupting it and inadvertently rescuing Felicia again, is such a contrivance - perhaps the most glaring, but just one among many.
In his earlier films, Egoyan might have boldly embraced such a coincidence - but presented it in such a way that its very unlikeliness would have become a comment on the underlying uncertainty of what we consider ordinary reality. Here it is part of a conventional story told in conventional terms and it becomes merely a glaring clock-work plot-point.
The other pivot of the story is Felicia herself. Played by the teen-aged Elaine Cassidy, Felicia is meant to be a naive innocent, a holy fool both put at risk and protected by her very innocence. Again, her rather iconic treatment in the script tends to make her come across as two-dimensional rather than as a whole person.
She enters into a relationship with a local boy in her Irish village. He pledges his love and gets her pregnant, then leaves to join the British Army. It is a shameful betrayal of his Irish blood, in Felicias fathers harsh opinion, who condemns his only, motherless daughter, telling her that she is "carrying the enemy in her belly." Her lover's mother won't give Felicia his address or forward her letters. She runs away to England to find him. Alone in a strange country, she is "befriended" by Joe.
We see all this, but it is presented without any amplification - we are never given to understand why any of these things happen, why these people feel or behave the way they do or what the wider consequences of their attitudes are.
As a result, Cassidy is given little to do other than listen to others in a stunned or puzzled (read: naive) silence. Her fresh, ethereal beauty makes Joes attraction for her plausible (although his earlier victims have all been prostitutes). We never see far into her own character. Despite the fact that she half-steals, half-borrows the money for her journey from her ailing Grandmother and sets off to find her lover on her own, we don't see other evidence of such independence and initiative. She is presented as a relatively passive victim, battered by circumstances.
Egoyan has said that he saw in the book a fable of depravity redeemed by innocence - a deviant, modern version of "Beauty and the Beast." By the encounter between them, Joe is made aware of the pain that drives him, how much of his humanity he has sacrificed and Felicia is made aware of the harsh realities of independence and adulthood and her need to take control of her own life.
The theme is clearly there in the finished film, but without any genuine emotional center to support it. Egoyan's screenplay simply doesn't convey the felt truth of what he is trying to evoke.
In the past, Egoyan has proved himself a singular film-maker with a highly personal style. He has used innovative, original and sometimes challenging techniques to convey the truth of character and events. To the extent that he has sacrificed that difficult and edgy individuality in pursuit of mainstream success in this case, it has not worked. Although his recent films may have found a wider audience, they fail to communicate with the startling vitality of his early work.
Felicia's Journey is an interesting, if not an engaging film. It is worth seeing for the terrific performance by Bob Hoskins alone. Egoyan is a talented film-maker, whose work is always worth a second look. In spite of shortcomings, there are many evidences of his ability here. If he can regain his faith in the eccentric vision that informed his early work and build on that, he may well become a major contributor to the new cinematic language now developing.
That's my take on it. What's yours?