He poses like a tightrope walker, though one who’s unexpectedly domestic and chubby. The left hand smoothly stirs a pot on the stove; the right arm, extended, hovers breast-high, as if to balance him. You might imagine that this bald, rotund man, dressed as if for the office, is on tiptoe as he stands in his kitchen. He smiles as he cooks, while sweet, glistening violins play on the soundtrack. Musical syrup, canned in the fifties: the aural equivalent of the old-fashioned cooking program that Hilditch raptly watches, imitating the chef’s every move.
This is our first glimpse of Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) in Felicia’s Journey, the droll, disquieting, enigmatic new film by Atom Egoyan. Inspired by, rather than based upon, the 1994 novel of the same name by William Trevor, the film represents a fresh departure in Egoyan’s remarkable career. At the same time, paradoxically, it’s a return to form.
For the first time, Egoyan has left behind his two national identities, Canadian and Armenian, and made a film set in someone else’s imaginative landscape. When he adapted Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan transferred the action from the northeast United States to someplace more familiar to him, British Columbia. In Felicia’s Journey–only the second film he has not written from scratch, out of eight features made so far–Egoyan has ventured onto Trevor’s turf, traveling to Ireland and the English Midlands.
For all that, Egoyan has also put himself back on his own turf. Read Felicia’s Journey, and you may conclude it’s about the homeless people who subsist in any big city, and how a young Irish woman joins their ranks. Watch Felicia’s Journey, and you may get the impression that this film, like others made by Egoyan before The Sweet Hereafter, is about somebody’s relationship to a loved one who exists only on videotape.
The French chef who so fascinates Hilditch is his mother, long dead (presumably) but still present to him as an image he can replay. In one of the funniest images in Felicia’s Journey, Hilditch goes so far as to share a formal dinner with her, watching Mum on TV through a pair of opera glasses. But there’s nothing amusing about Hilditch’s other viewing rituals. He also maintains a video archive of young women he’s befriended–strays, waifs, prostitutes. As the movie unfolds, you get the idea that these images are all that remain of the women; and the latest in the series is already within Hilditch’s viewfinder.
Her name is Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), and she has come from Ireland in search of the young man who got her pregnant and has now disappeared. A girl from a country town who apparently speaks Gaelic as her mother tongue, Felicia steps off the ferry in a pair of platform shoes–her fanciest pair, no doubt–as if expecting to bump into her lover at the next corner. Soon she learns there are many corners in the industrial Midlands; and while she’s trudging her way through them, she accepts a lift from this funny, old-fashioned man who drives about in a little green car.
It’s a good setup for a suspense movie, but Egoyan prefers suspension. Felicia is a person unmoored. So, too, in his way, is Hilditch. And so the movie floats between them, observing a relationship built on willful ignorance on the one side and insane manipulation on the other. Unable to know themselves, out of place in their societies, these two characters nevertheless form a temporary world of their own. That it will end in violence doesn’t much interest Egoyan. He’s fascinated to see it exist at all.