Felicia’s Journey (1999)

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By Mike Ward

Going Too Far

“D

on’t let it go too far,” the Felicia of this film’s title is advised, as she searches for the father of her unborn child in an Irish pub. “Enough to say you’ve lost it.” Felicia’s Journey seems to cycle round this maxim in an irregular orbit, sometimes close enough that the quiet sanity of its characters’ voices nearly silences it, sometimes distant enough that it nearly floats away into its obsessions. Throughout, though, the film insists that the control needed to keep from “going too far” is often impossible to maintain. Searching for what one wants is simple enough; when one begins to search for what one needs, the judgment and the will evaporate just as they are needed most.

Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) begins the film having already gone too far, riding from Ireland to England with nothing but a backpack and a roll of crisp bills borrowed from her ailing grandmother. In pursuing a boy, Johnny (Peter McDonald), with whom she’s had a recent love affair, Felicia has lost her family. Her father (Gerard McSorley), a staunch Irish separatist who has heard rumors of Johnny’s enlistment with the British Army, essentially disowns her on learning that she bears Johnny’s child. His parting words: “You carry the enemy within you.”

Investigating Johnny’s last-known whereabouts — he was originally to take a job at a lawnmower factory in Birmingham — Felicia encounters the middle-aged benefactor who will later supply her the fine advice about exercising moderation in her pursuits, and much more help besides. She flags him down as he’s driving off after his shift and asks him whether she has found “the lawnmower factory”; he says no and gives her directions to another place nearby where she might have better luck. As she wanders off, the camera catches, seemingly accidentally, a worker welding a rider mower. You realize that, in addition to his assistance, this man is to deal Felicia a great many lies.

The man, Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) — an evident culinary artist — is below his station as the lead chef at the factory cafeteria, but he is not stingy with his talents as he entreats his staff to begin a meal with a good stock and patiently tastes their product until it meets with his satisfaction. “Food must be served by living hands,” he informs a vending machine salesman. “Not by machines.” At this early juncture we’ve already seen the two sides of Joseph’s personality — his easy compulsion for telling the most subtly hurtful lies cohabits restlessly with an admirable strength of conviction that comes from his gift for grasping and relating simple truths. We really learn this about him later on, though, at about the same time that we learn he has been serially abusing or killing women off the street, and has earmarked Felicia as his latest victim.

In investigating Joseph’s crimes, Felicia’s Journey appears briefly in danger of drifting into well-worn territory. We learn through painfully gradual disclosure that Joseph is fixated, Norman-Bates style, on a cold and aloof mother — a beautiful woman named Gala (Arsinee Khanjian) who helmed a popular cooking show in the 1950s.

But the film’s able direction navigates effortlessly past such worn themes. We never lose sight of Joseph’s humanity even as his actions become more and more disturbing, because the two halves of his personality — the liar, opposite the compassionate benefactor — begin slowly to converge. It eventually becomes clear that his knack for simple truths enables him to touch these women deeply; on a videotape one says that she has found “strength” and “spirit” after talking with him at length. One after another the girls make plans to return to their lives with the new sense of resolution he’s given them, but — saddled with a loneliness inherited from his agonizing childhood — he kills them because cannot bear to see them leave. He too has simply become lost in a search that he’s let go too far.

Hoskins executes this delicate balancing act with a warm but distant austerity reminiscent of James Mason in Kubrick’s exquisite Lolita. Like Humbert, Joseph steals Felicia’s trust through lies and sins of omission. He learns that Johnny did indeed enlist in the military but fails to tell her, and he advises her not to let her search go too far, having spied Johnny at the other side of the room and said nothing. Hoskins’ performance is at its most powerfully ambiguous, though, when he departs from Mason’s precedent to render Joseph in desperate solitude. Joseph spends his week nights preparing dishes under his mother’s instruction (he has what appears to be a complete collection of Gala’s TV shows), and then dining with a formality excessive for a man alone. He reviews the tapes he’s taken of his victims as they bemoan their lives on the streets and fantasize — one “pretend[s] that I was needed, wanted, not just for my body but for me.” In short, he looks. Peering primly through opera spyglasses to close the span between the long table and the TV screen, Joseph is at his most remote and also at his most troubled, caught in a habitual enactment of gazing rituals that keep an inner turmoil at bay.

These rituals are eventually knocked out of their fragile equilibrium, as Freud would have us believe is always the case with phantasy. With the aid of Gala’s cooking show, Joseph is stuffing a turkey when he appears on the screen as a child. An ungainly, overweight English boy in a ridiculous school uniform, the young Joey tries, at Gala’s behest, to force the stuffing into the turkey using a tube-like contraption. But he fails and the stuffing oozes onto his hands, the counter, everywhere. As punishment (and while the cameras roll), Gala force-feeds him a lump of dressing and the adult Joseph gags along with the child Joey, having recovered a memory he can’t cope with. Gala shakes her head at the camera, disparaging little Joey to her audience and at the same time, through the immediacy of the TV frame, reaching across the intervening time to scold the adult Joseph.

For a vanishing, eerie moment, Gala comes back to life. Joseph’s phantoms and recollections always visit him through TV screens. His childhood memories on the set of Gala’s cooking show are grainy and color-saturated, as though his psyche were a part of the show’s apparatus. When the crew forbids him from entering any more shots, it’s as though they’d asked him to wink himself out of existence: he wanders down the set to evade a sweeping, tracking camera and, stumbling upon his mother’s purse, pilfers it. As we witness this, the adult Joseph is digging through Felicia’s bookbag to steal her envelope of crisp bills.

For her part, Felicia has lost everything by this point. This is mostly Joseph’s doing but, not knowing this, she must imagine the world has allied against her when Johnny fails to appear, her money vanishes, and everyone outside of the beneficent Joseph turns on her. Despite her turmoil, though — cast in sharp relief to the stability of Joseph’s external life, with his elegant home and solid, if stultifying, factory job — her backstory is presented with a realism that merges seamlessly into the movie’s present time.

Even when lying drugged on an operating table, Felicia’s consciousness is crisp and clear; she has a sad, lyrical dream of Johnny playing with their son, the final thing she is to lose. As such, Felicia is the perfect vehicle for the movie’s final declaration, a belief it has held to firmly despite all the trouble, and a conviction that sets it apart from serial killer films came before. “Lost within a man who murdered,” she writes (and repeats for us in voice-over) in the movie’s closing moments, “there was a soul like any other.” Amidst all its chaos, Felicia’s Journey never disregards the tragedy of a lost soul.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/felicias-journey2/