Felicia’s Journey

(Atom Egoyan, Canada/UK, 1999)


Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey has the unusual distinction of being the gentlest serial killer movie I have ever seen.

Ambrose (Bob Hoskins) is a seemingly sweet, slightly eccentric chef who spends his free time helping young girls in need. Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) arrives in Ambrose’s hometown of Birmingham, vainly searching for her boyfriend, Johnny (Peter McDonald).

As in many Egoyan films, we await with some dread the moment when Ambrose and Felicia – both dreamers, both lost souls – will meet.

Egoyan – one of the most politically radical arthouse filmmakers to emerge in the ’80s – maintains an unusual balancing act in relation to the commercial cinema that has modestly embraced him. He provides some of the standard pleasures of narrative filmmaking, while rigorously eschewing others. This tension between convention and subversion goes rather slack in Felicia’s Journey.

Like most other Canadian directors of high ambition (such as Cronenberg or Robert Lepage), Egoyan has found the fertile ground where his cerebral concerns and the storytelling demands of Hollywood can meet: the mystery genre. Few filmmakers can unravel an enigma with Egoyan’s painstaking skill and mastery – in the process involving us with characters who are, as a rule, rather petty, stunted or deluded.

Although Egoyan loves to unfold a narrative through flashbacks, he refuses to provide a backstory that easily explains everything happening in the present. We search in vain for the clue or key in Ambrose’s childhood that will explain the extent and depth of his adult perversions. But this creates an odd vacuum in the film, since Egoyan spends so much time on the unfunny, overplayed videoclips of Ambrose’s mother, Gala (Arsinée Khanjian), and her television cooking show.

It is really only in the final twenty minutes of the story that this red herring of the past falls away and Egoyan’s key theme emerges: the enigma of evil itself. Almost every character in his movies is, in a spiritual sense, a fallen angel who has lost his or her initial innocence and become entangled in perpetuating a form of evil. Egoyan’s films calmly tell us that this is the way of the world, the great fact of life: from there, we must all grapple with the problem of clawing back to a fragile state of goodness.

Strangely, it is precisely here that Egoyan meets up with Hollywood convention once more. These days, almost every scriptwriting manual preaches the need for heroes to undergo journeys and find redemption by the final frame. For Egoyan, journeys and illuminations, like mysteries, are the most serious things in the world. But they never take shape exactly as one expects – certainly neither for Felicia nor Ambrose.

It is easy to write a dissertation on the links between Felicia’s Journey and every other Egoyan film. Sadly, it is not so easy to sit through. The landscapes and rooms are compelling, and the understated acting (with the exception of hammy Hoskins) is pitched well. But overall, coming from such a talented filmmaker, it is a lifeless and disappointing work.

MORE Egoyan: Ararat, Exotica

© Adrian Martin February 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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