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[whitespace] Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy
Killing Her With Kindness: Bob Hoskins is a serial killer who takes in pregnant teen Elaine Cassidy.

A Hitch in The Works

Atom Egoyan's 'Felicia's Journey' gives us a serial killer in the Hitchcock mode

By Richard von Busack

BEAUTIFUL AND MACABRE, Felicia's Journey is neither really suspenseful nor completely serious. It's being sold as another movie about the male cat and the female mouse (a la The Bone Collector). But this tale of a killer is less interested in tension and escape than in the dreamy life of the unawakened murderer.

As a killer of young women, Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) is such a recessive old dear--about as intimidating as a wombat. Hilditch is an eccentric, roly-poly man with a bad mother complex. His late, but omnipresent, mother is played--ripely, glamorously and outrageously French-accented--by director Atom Egoyan's wife, Arsinée Khanjian.

As always, I feel like swooning over Egoyan's use of sound and widescreen cinematography--he's a masterful composer in an almost extinct form today. Felicia's Journey can be recommended for its visual glory, its sick humor and the satisfying traditional ending of the wolf bested by the maiden.

In an interview by phone, Egoyan tells me that he was interested in some of the other stylish thrillers of decades ago. He mentions The Collector (which isn't my cup of tea) and Peeping Tom (which certainly is). Felicia's Journey seems to be a special tribute to Michael Powell's film about mania.

The whistle is well and truly blown, however, in the name of Hoskins' character, which is almost "Hitch." Anyone wanting to assemble a filmed Alfred Hitchcock biography need look no further--here's the man. It's all you can do not to whistle Borodin's Funeral March for a Marionette when Hoskins turns up.

This is Egoyan's first trip overseas in film--except for his 16mm film Calendar, which was shot in Armenia, where his family is from. For this voyage to the English Midlands, Egoyan has filled the screen with spare parts--a metal wilderness of pipes and gears for Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), an Irish girl impregnated and dropped by her British lover. Complimenting Egoyan on his eye for the industrial landscapes, I venture, "I know this sounds voyeuristic, but I did want to see the Dark Satanic Mills."

"They're difficult to see these days," Egoyan replies. "You read about in books how people's faces were blackened by the smoke, [about] the unusual accent--they couldn't breathe through their nose, and that's the origin of the Brummy [Birmingham] accent. All that is mostly gone, though; where we were filming were, for the most part, light industrial parks--very anonymous landscapes. They could have been anywhere. We had to look for a way to make what was left look surreal."

In one surreal shot, we see what are apparently huge nuclear-power-plant cooling chimneys, next to which Hilditch's buglike car scuttles on a road just yards away from the sloping base of the towers. "They're quite benign," Egoyan says, "just water cooling towers that appear to be nuclear but aren't. I couldn't believe that someone would put a road so close to a nuclear power plant, but then I found out the truth. [It's] interesting how outsiders read a landscape."

EGOYAN'S WORK suffers especially badly from transfer to tape--and at the same time, he's the kind of filmmaker whose work often doesn't travel to most of the nation's theaters. The pan-and-scan version of his masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan says, is especially displeasing, compared to the widescreen experience of seeing the film.

"I think widescreen is the absolute premium format for films," he says. "The image is completely saturated, and widescreen gives you such an extraordinary tool to express characters in relation to a landscape. I'm becoming aware, though, that I'm trying to compress images in anticipation of video transfer."

In the most unsettling part of Felicia's Journey, Hilditch tries to pressure Felicia into an abortion. From some angles, the film could look like an anti-choice horror story.

"You're the first journalist to ask me about that," Egoyan says, "and I thought it would be a much more explosive issue. [It's an] extraordinary scene in the film, because everything he's saying makes perfect sense, and yet it's coming out of the mouth of a psychopath. I think the film is really about the nature of choice and determination, regarding how far we go. When I was filming those scenes, I was asking myself, 'Is this going to be explosive?' "

Maybe, but the explosiveness is cooled through the film's sympathy for Hoskins' Hilditch. He has the heart of a child (I don't mean one preserved in a bottle). Even his killings take place offscreen, making Hilditch even more of a tribute to the sweet, well-dressed mama's-boy killers of pre-Manson cinema.

But Hilditch is as trapped by his self-inflicted blindness as was Ian Holm's character in The Sweet Hereafter. Felicia's Journey seems like lesser work in comparison because the family confusion of Holm is easy to identify with. But a case of homicidal mania is harder to imagine, save through the filter of movie fantasy. And thus it's apparent in Felicia's Journey that we're watching an exceedingly well-made movie about movies.

Throughout Egoyan's work--Exotica, The Adjuster and The Sweet Hereafter--are figures who are strangers to themselves, caught in repetitive behavior that will never permit them satisfaction or escape. Hilditch is just the most pathological, not the most confused. Critics sometimes use the expression "cinema of disappointment" to describe Egoyan's work. I ask him if he approved of the phrase. "Cinema of disappointment? I've never heard that before. It's not a very marketable concept, is it?"

Felicia's Journey (PG-13; 116 min.), directed and written by Atom Egoyan, based on the novel by William Trevor, photographed by Paul Sarossy and starring Bob Hoskins and Arsinée Khanjian, opens Friday at the Guild in Menlo Park and at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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