Felicia's Journey Review

[I reviewed Warner's Region 2 DVD of Felicia's Journey in 2000. For reading convenience, the first three paragraphs of synopsis and comment below are repeated from my original review.]

Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) is alone, pregnant and just arrived in Birmingham from Ireland. She's in search of her boyfriend Johnny (Peter McDonald), who is now a soldier in the British Army. She is befriended by Mr Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a owner of a catering company, who helps her look for Johnny. But Hilditch is not the kindly old bachelor he appears to be at first.

Canadian director Atom Egoyan's earlier films, such as The Adjuster, were distanced and stylised, obsessed with themes of communication between people or the lack of it. They were undeniably clever and talented, but rather cold. With Exotica and especially The Sweet Hereafter he began to make films that engage an audience on more than a cerebral level. Felicia's Journey, based on William Trevor's Booker-nominated novel, is a slow-burning but stylish psychological thriller. It's not on the same level as The Sweet Hereafter, but it's no disgrace as a follow-up. Bob Hoskins is hardly obvious casting as a Brummie, but he gives a subtly chilling performance as the seemingly harmless but secretly dangerous Hilditch. Elaine Cassidy's adeptly conveys Felicia's outer naïveté and deeper toughness. Egoyan and his cinematographer Paul Sarossy have an acute eye for locations. This film shows how cinematically little-used England's second city has been.

Video, as a surrogate for human interaction, featured largely in Egoyan's early work, and that continues in Felicia's Journey. Hilditch is still haunted by his late mother, a professional-Frenchwoman TV chef, and he watches videos of her obsessively. (She's played by Arsinée Khanjian, who is Egoyan's wife, and although these scenes are a little indulgent, they do add humour to the film.) Egoyan's interest in non-linear narrative structure is evident here too, with flashbacks to Felicia's past in rural Ireland. These sequences tread more familiar ground: we've already had plenty of reminders of how conservative Irish society can be.

Comparing the UK Region 2 from Warners and this R1 release from Artisan, all that the two DVDs would seem to have in common is the film itself, the commentary and the lack of any subtitles. In all other respects – picture, sound, extras – they are wildly different.

Felicia’s Journey was made in Scope and, unlike the R2, this DVD has an widescreen-enhanced transfer in the correct aspect ratio, 2.35:1. Egoyan and Sarossy shot the film with anamorphic lenses, so that the 4:3 image on the R2 disc is genuinely panned and scanned. There isn’t the extra picture height that you’d get with a Super 35 original: instead, about 40% of the picture has been cropped from the sides. To be fair, this isn’t a film that suffers too much from panning and scanning. As with most Scope films of the last twenty years or so, Egoyan and Sarossy keep the vital action (that is, anyone who is speaking or doing anything significant) within a “safe area”, a part of the frame that can easily be extracted and shown full-frame on a 4:3 TV set. The sides of the frame are often used for visual detail that isn’t necessary to understand the plot, but does add to the atmosphere. Felicia and Hilditch are often shown alone even when other people are present in the scene, the wide frame emphasising their isolation. Artisan’s transfer is sharp and colourful, though not without aliasing in the places you’d normally find it. Seeing the full image enables you to appreciate some subtle directorial and cinematographic touches. Look at the flashback to Felicia saying goodbye to Johnny. In the shots of Felicia solo, short lenses are used which make her distinct from her background, her home village. As Johnny chats with his friend, Sarossy uses a long lens, which makes him part of that same background. The look of the film intentionally varies: from vivid greens for the Irish sections, to the more naturalistic Birmingham scenes. There’s also intentionally coarse-grained video complete with visible lines, and some flashbacks to Hilditch’s childhood are deliberately unnaturalistic. Artisan’s transfer copes admirably with all of this.

For such an intimate film, you wouldn’t expect a particularly active soundtrack, but you’d be wrong. Artisan’s DVD has a 5.1 track that is exceptionally busy, with the surrounds used for ambience, Mychael Danna’s score and quite a lot of directional sound effects (passing cars, even an offscreen helicopter). The subwoofer gets a workout too, notably in a brief scene where Hilditch delivers some of his company’s products to a factory. The R2 has only a Dolby Surround mix, which simply doesn’t have the same impact or immersive quality.

There are thirty-two chapter stops, which is plenty for a two-hour feature. Like the R2, there are no subtitles anywhere on the disc, which is unfortunate.

The only extra both discs have in common is Egoyan’s commentary. This won’t please everyone: it's a two-hour analysis of the film we're watching, pointing out themes and symbols and their developments. Despite the increased emotional content of his later films, it's clear he's far more engaged by ideas. As such, his commentary is on the dry side. Anyone looking for chatty anecdotes had better look elsewhere, though in fairness Egoyan is very interesting. You do realise how much thought has gone into seemingly minor details.

That’s it for the R2, but the extras list for the R1 is just beginning. Grouped in with the commentary on the menu is the other audio extra, which is watching the film with Danna’s score isolated.

“Hilditch’s video collection” enables us to see in full the videos (of his past victims) we saw glimpses of in the film itself. This selection was displayed as an art-gallery installation by Egoyan called Evidence. The videos are presented full-frame and are (I’d guess) largely improvised by the actresses concerned. Each one is named after the character: Gaye (running 3:25), Sharon (2:42), Bobby (1:05), Beth (1:46), Jackie (1:50), Elaine (5:21) and Samantha (3:09). Each has to be accessed singly from the menu. A “Play All” option might have been a better idea.

“Gala’s Cookery Class” comprises two views of the same scene, where Hilditch’s younger self (played by Danny Turner) appears on his mother’s cookery programme. The link marked “Treated” is an extract from the film itself (in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic), while “mistreated” is presumably the original video shoot, with the word “action” clearly audible at the start. This is full-frame and runs 1:26. We also get two recipes, both presented as text pages. Thanks to the wonder of DVD, you can now make Roast lamb with pistou, or Roast turkey with sausage and fennel stuffing and madeira gravy. A nice, imaginative touch.

The rest of the extras are mostly electronic press-kit stuff. The featurette runs a mere 7:27 and is the usual interview snippets plus film extracts. There are two trailers, a green-label (all audiences) US one (full-frame) which runs 2:07 and a Canadian one (2.35:1 non-anamorphic) which runs 2:24. The former, unusually, has a 5.1 soundtrack. The four American TV spots – “Imagine” (0:29), “Joey” (0:34), “Review” (0:29) and “Help” (0:20) – are pretty much summed up by their titles as to their emphases.

The interviews are with Hoskins (six sections, totaling 3:30), Cassidy (three sections, 3:20) and Egoyan (four sections, 3:18). Each section is very short, with only one over a minute in length and the shortest being a mere six seconds. Again, you can’t “play all” but have to select each one from the menu. Rounding off the extras are biographies of the principal cast, Egoyan, William Trevor and producer Bruce Davey. The packaging refers to deleted scenes, but they aren’t on the disc itself, unless as an Easter Egg I’ve yet to find.

Felicia’s Journey remains an intriguing, though slow-burning, psychological thriller that’s worth seeing for its two lead performances and its keen eye for underused locations. Even if you aren’t interested in extras, I’d still recommend the Region 1 over the Region 2 for its correct-ratio picture and superior soundtrack.

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