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Saturday, March 11, 2000

A medieval tale in a modern setting

With his latest work, filmmaker Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter") proves he can make a period movie minus the costumes, wigs and lavish budget. "Felicia's Journey" is almost other- worldly, with characters akin to figures from a medieval fresco, whose thoughts and actions are so remote from what we have been conditioned to accept as "modern," that it's almost like seeing a skewed, distant cousin version of "Back to the Future."

Yet the year is 1998 and the backdrop is Birmingham, in the industrial heartland of the northern U.K. This is about as far as you can get from the swish of milkmaid skirts but Egoyan's world is genuine fairyland territory. In fact, if the Brothers Grimm were around today they would be making the same kind of film. However, as far as fairy-tale mysticism goes, "Felicia's Journey" wins over "Hansel and Gretel" hands down.

The story opens on a middle-aged catering manager named Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) who lives all alone in a large country house. Hilditch seems to have just one passion in life: food. His daily dinner ritual consists of playing a scratchy video of a '50s cooking program, presided over by Gala, a seductive minx with a heavy French accent.

Her recipes are elaborate, caloric and gloriously time-consuming -- dishes like crown of roasted lamb with pureed pickles, or turkey stuffed with garlic and innards. Hilditch, however, faithfully follows every step of the program, before sitting down to a vast candle-lit meal for one. At home and at work, Hilditch wears immaculate suits with quiet ties, his sleeves carefully rolled up when he's bending over his beloved pots of stock.

One afternoon, he crosses paths with Irish teenager Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), who's lost and helpless and clutching a cheap knapsack. Felicia has left her little village in Ireland to search for Johnny (Peter MacDonald), her boyfriend of two weeks whom she believes is now working in a lawn mower factory. She is desperate to see him again, not just to rekindle their relationship but to tell him of her pregnancy.

Hilditch sees right away that Felicia is an astonishing innocent and ignoramus, that she is devoid of the modern wherewithal that girls of 8 are equipped with nowadays. He kindly directs her to a B&B and suggests ways of finding Johnny -- without offering her a lift. Thus he wins her over and a couple of days later, she's sitting beside him in his Morris Minor (more '50s memorabilia), telling him her woes. He, in turn, spills out a sob story of an imaginary wife dying of cancer in a local hospital.

Both these people are isolated from the world -- Hilditch through choice and Felicia through her traditional Irish upbringing. As a result, Hilditch has turned into an ogre lord of his lonely castle and Felicia is part Snow White, part Gretel -- an abandoned waif (her father threw her out when she confessed her pregnancy) lost in a forest of steel mills.

The ogre manages to lure her into his domain, and the waif is too tired and unsuspecting to suspect ulterior motives. The repast he prepares for her is the kind of thing we see in storybooks, a magnificent meal envisioned by the Little Match Girl. Kindly, persistently, he induces her to stay and plies her with biscuits.

This is probably Hoskins' best role to date, one that he has described as "a cross between Jack the Ripper and Winnie the Pooh." The film is not entirely his though: Cassidy as Felicia displays an amazing aptitude for innocence, stubborn faith and a tragic belief in the goodness of others. It's fitting (and depressing) that Felicia is discarded by the callous Johnny and victimized by the dangerous Hilditch, since the rest of the world (save for a bible-pushing Jesus worshipper played by Claire Bendict) moves too quickly to give her much notice.

"Felicia's Journey" is based on a novel by William Trevor, dense with the analyses of the two main characters who live so much in the past. Egoyan bows to the original story throughout, ever sensitive to their emotional nuances.

Though the story has a horribly violent premise, Egoyan is too careful to display it outright. The terror is there, but hiding in the shadows of Hilditch's house, carefully guarded from his lens. What transpires in its place is the sadness. In fact, after "Felicia's Journey," the mere sight of lamb chops may bring you to tears.

"Felicia's Journey" opens March 18 at Cinema Rise.

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