Killing With Kindness

Let the healing begin: Bob Hoskins in Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey

Like most intelligent filmmakers, Atom Egoyan says he'd prefer that viewers know as little as possible about his latest movie before seeing it. But the fact that Felicia's Journey is adapted from the best-selling novel by Irish national treasure William Trevor precludes such secrecy; and besides, while it'd be nice for me not to mention the film's serial killer, everyone else either has or will, and not doing so would essentially turn a review into a preview. So we'll start by asking: Is it possible to make a feel-good movie about a serial killer?

After all, Felicia's Journey has neither physical violence nor bloodshed--not on the part of the killer, anyway. There are no chase scenes or narrow escapes, and nary a scream or a shout. Whatever happened to Elsie, Beth, Sharon, Jackki, Gaye, Bobbi, and Samantha at the hands of one Mr. Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a portly catering manager at a Birmingham factory, is left to the imagination. Needless to say, those partial to Bone Collector-style gore should probably skip this one.

Turning away from traditional frightmongering, Egoyan instead gently probes the mind of the murderer in a film that's not just redemptive but positively therapeutic: On more than one occasion, characters declare that "the pain can wash away; the healing can commence." And you can roll your eyes, but Egoyan usually has a way of making such cornball stuff work. Felicia's Journey, however, is a different story in several senses of the phrase.

The serial killer here comes across as an exceptionally compassionate man: Hoskins makes him as creepily understated as his compatriot Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter was flamboyantly monstrous. At work, Hilditch is a beloved, avuncular figure who delights in taking desserts to workers on the factory floor. At home, in a glowing, impossibly cozy Tudor, he prepares elaborate gourmet meals, precisely mimicking videotapes of an old show on French cuisine. Even the victims, a series of wayward girls secretly videotaped in Hilditch's car, express gratitude for how much he has helped them. Does this fastidious gentleman take killing with kindness as his m.o.?

As Hilditch encounters his next intended victim, first by accident and then by increasingly elaborate design, we watch his wheels spinning anew. Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) is an unworldly 17-year-old from a remote Irish village, a girl whose glittering black eyes are utterly without depth--or, seemingly, a sense of judgment. She is acted upon more than she acts on her own behalf, and Hilditch has a bloodhound's nose for this kind of vulnerability. Felicia has come to England to search for Johnny (Peter McDonald), the fellow villager who got her in the sack (that was as easy as telling her she was beautiful). But she's not angry, she's in love--and with child.

When the wandering Felicia shows up at his company's gates, Hilditch suggests another factory where Johnny might work, then recommends a B&B for her. By the next morning, he has sealed her fate. Appearing at the B&B, he inquires about its quality: "I wouldn't like to think I've misled you," he says with the subtle foreboding of the entire film. He offers to drive her 50 miles to a third factory, in the same town where his wife is in the hospital.

But there is no wife--which is probably a result of Hilditch's fixation on the glamorous Gala (Arsinee Khanjian), the host of those cooking shows and, secondarily, his mother (shades of Hitchcock's Psycho). In Trevor's novel, Gala was a proverbially loose woman. Transforming her into a career-obsessed, Fifties-era Martha Stewart with her own brand of food processor is a wonderfully telling move from Egoyan, whose characters often have symbolic livelihoods (insurance adjuster, film censor, exotic pet store owner, lap dancer).

A mother's cooking is ideally associated with love and attention, and yet Hildie's mom lavishes all she has on the TV camera. In clips from the show, the chubby boy occasionally acts as a decorative prop; more often, he glumly hangs about and gets in the way. Egoyan's characters often develop rituals that shield them from ugly truths; Hilditch tries to connect with his mother every time he recreates her haute-cuisine feasts. This becomes plenty obvious when he fixes Felicia--the first girl he ever brings into his home--a canned repast on ugly, everyday plates.

The food and mom issues are the best part of Felicia's Journey, partly because of Khanjian's hammy turn as the Gallic gourmand. The rest, while rich, is subtle nearly to a fault. Take Felicia's side of the story, which Egoyan tries to link to Irish tradition. When Felicia's disapproving father drills into her that "sacrifices have been made, and they will be honored," he's referring to their family history, although it just as well applies to her deadly dance with Hilditch. Interestingly, this is the third time in as many films that Egoyan has highlighted a young woman's coming of age, but unlike Christina's transformation in Exotica, or that of Nicole in The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's remains unconvincing--flat, even. Maybe it's because her lessons are more narrated than lived; or that, in this age of spunky, take-charge heroines, it's quite a gulf to breach in getting to this radiantly and heartbreakingly artless girl, played with delicate precision by Cassidy.

Overall, in fact, Felicia's Journey lacks the impact of The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica. Although they deal with many of the same themes (memories and obsessions, familial dysfunction, emotional isolation), the earlier films masterfully shuffled a host of characters, plots, and time frames in a process as controlled as it was complex. (Some also found it cold, but it seems to me that Egoyan's cinematic dissections are emotionally piercing precisely because of that distance.)

The relatively simple, more traditional structure of Felicia's Journey homes in on a cat-and-mouse game and its players' separate histories: Felicia's freshly aborted love affair, and Hilditch's equally painful yet more distant childhood. Even as Egoyan gently warps the serial-killer genre and cleverly unfolds his story, he also sacrifices his deftly symbolic style for more straightforward storytelling. The result is a highly polished film, albeit one that's more interesting in theory than in execution. Despite his reputation for intellectual rigor, it almost seems as if Egoyan was bored by Felicia's Journey: His grasp is beyond his reach.


Felicia's Journey starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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