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(1999) (Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy) (PG-13)

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Drama/Suspense: While searching in England for her boyfriend who's seemingly disappeared, a young and pregnant Irish woman encounters a friendly and seemingly eccentric middle-aged man who decides to help her, but may turn out to be someone she wasn't expecting.
Felicia (ELAINE CASSIDY) is a pregnant young Irish woman who's traveled to England looking for her boyfriend Johnny (PETER McDONALD). Having been given an ultimatum by her father to give up Johnny -- who reportedly joined the British Army, their archenemy -- or move out, Felicia chose the latter. This is despite not knowing exactly where or what Johnny's doing, except that she believes he works in a lawnmower factory.

While searching through an industrial town, Felicia encounters Joseph Hidlitch (BOB HOSKINS), a middle-aged catering manager whose little eccentricities -- he cooks step by step with an old black and white cooking program featuring French TV personality, Gala (ARSINÉE KHANJIAN) -- seem quaint and charming. Although he initially only gives her directions to places she might check for Johnny, he eventually offers to give her a ride out of town -- where he's reportedly going to see his sick wife -- where she might find her boyfriend.

Unbeknownst to Felicia, however, Joseph has no wife, but does have a collection of videotapes of other young women he's "helped" in the past. As the increasingly psychotic man continues to help Felicia with her quest, little does she know what waits in store for her.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
There's an old saying about certain aquatic fowl that loosely goes along the lines of if it quacks like a duck, waddles like one and is visually reminiscent of Donald or Daffy, then it probably isn't going to taste like chicken. As applied to movies, it's usually not that difficult to ascertain what kind of "duck" you're watching. Be they romantic comedies, costume dramas or sci-fi epics, they're usually rather easy to spot and classify accordingly.

Occasionally, however, you'll encounter a film that -- due to its initial trappings -- isn't quite so easy to peg. Such is the case with "Felicia's Journey," the latest film from writer/director Atom Egoyan, the critically lauded director of "The Sweet Hereafter."

Although it starts off with an interesting and compelling story of an odd and amusing little man, the duck feathers and quacking soon follow as the film turns into yet another psychotic serial killer tale. For those upset that I've gone and ruined the film by divulging too much too soon, that's okay, because Egoyan was guilty of that long before me. While such knowledge doesn't necessarily derail this character-driven film, it does take a lot of wind from its sails and forces me to mix my metaphors.

While the great Alfred Hitchcock was a big proponent of superior position -- letting the audience know more than the characters and thus presumably increasing the suspense factor several notches for them -- applying it in any given film is a tricky proposition no matter the expected payoff.

Regarding any given film's overall tone, built up suspense usually works better than unexpected scares (the "jump scenes" that quickly wear thin through repetition and/or predictability), but filmmakers need to be careful with the temporal and quantitative aspects of releasing such superior information. Revealing too much and/or too soon is often the equivalent of learning how a magic trick is performed before it's completed as both take the "fun" out of the proceedings.

That holds true for "Felicia's Journey." Although we don't know the exact details regarding Hidlitch's ultimate plan for Felicia, the fact that we're shown his sordid history with similar women is revealed way too soon. Although that does create some suspense as we then worry about the poor girl and what may happen to her, I felt as if the cat were let out of the bag — so to speak — far earlier than necessary.

Fortunately for the film and the audience, Egoyan is more concerned with character related plot developments than in creating a run-of-the-mill, "guess whodunit" thriller. Thus, there's no screenwriter- inspired killing behavior (such as in the recently released "The Bone Collector" where the killer leaves clever clues for others to find), nor a cop tracking down those clues. More important, however, and notwithstanding the premature disclosure of the madman's true motivation, there's nothing that completely prevents the audience from admiring Egoyan's work.

In fact, up until that important disclosure, the film is masterfully done as we get an entertaining but purposefully nebulous view of Hidlitch with hints of oddities and peculiarities about him that could be just manifestations of eccentricity or perhaps something a bit more sinister. Watching the character cook by following an old cooking show note for note and then seeing that he has a pantry chock full of identical culinary equipment creates a fun, but somewhat creepy atmosphere and immediately lures the viewer into the proceedings.

The same holds true for Egoyan's style of telling the story -- based on the novel by William Trevor -- where the catering manager's life in a cold and barren industrial city is intercut with and contrasts that of Felicia leaving her lush and green homeland -- shown in various flashbacks -- and arriving in a foreign and foreboding place. While the symbolism may be a bit obvious -- particularly in relation to the two coming to grips with family matters as well as what apparently might lie in wait for her -- it's still quite effective and Egoyan's masterful use of a nonlinear plot structure keeps the audience hooked.

It also doesn't hurt that the film enjoys a set of great performances from its two leads. As the evidently twisted catering manager, Bob Hoskins ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Mona Lisa") delivers a tremendous and mostly understated take on the character. Not playing the usual, raving mad serial killer, Hoskins underplays the part, delivering subtle nuances that create an interesting, if obviously disturbed individual who's fascinating to watch.

His counterpart, Elaine Cassidy ("The Sun, the Moon and the Stars"), easily holds her own in a role that requires varying and often difficult emotions to express. Not only must she credibly portray the vulnerable young woman still believing that the father of her child is her boyfriend, but through the various flashbacks we see her resilience in standing up to those -- particularly her father -- who don't believe in her. It's a great performance and one that will probably bring Cassidy many more roles in the future.

Returning to our duck analogy, this clearly isn't a lame one, but it's not quite as good since we know too much too soon. While Felicia's slow discovery of Hidlitch's secret would have made the film more energetic -- as far as thrillers go -- one still has to admire the cast, the performances they deliver, and Egoyan's hand at turning what could have been a mundane serial killer flick into something more. We give "Felicia's Journey" a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 5, 1999 / Posted November 19, 1999

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