City of lost souls

City of lost souls

By: Phil Parrish

How impeccably arranged and imprisoned those unhatched eggs seem. Incubated for show and posterity in a drawing room cabinet, these symbols of nascent growth are the first things we see in Felicia’s Journey, Atom Egoyan’s 1999 psychological thriller set in England’s second city.

As the scene unfolds, the camera pans slowly through an immaculate yet empty home to the strains of a slushy 1950s ballad eulogising the innocence of youth.  It eventually rests upon Joey Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a cuddly catering manager, mother-fixated gastronome and serial killer of young girls, busy preparing his latest culinary delight in a kitchen that feels about half a century out of date.

Cooking is a cathartic experience for Hilditch, an act deeply intertwined with the traumas of his childhood. And it’s the corruption of youth and the tyranny of the past which are the staple ingredients of Felicia’s Journey. Based on the novel by Irish writer William Trevor, the movie tells the story of a provincial Gaelic girl (Elaine Cassidy), pregnant with a British squaddie’s child, who is then rejected by her embittered Republican father for ‘carrying the enemy within her’.

Romeo has done a bunk from a land scarred by the Troubles, and Felicia – pure, steadfast and naive - pursues him across the sea, in the deluded hope of starting a family. Meandering lonely through the industrialised streets of late 1990s Birmingham, she is strange fruit ripe for the taking. And Hilditch, a portly, softly-spoken Brummie equivalent of Norman Bates, decides to bite.

Outwardly charming and feigning grandfatherly benevolence, Hilditch isolates Felicia to coax her gently onto his list of victims, a collection of impressionable drifters he fondly refers to as the ‘lost girls’. The unloved son of a 1950s Nigella-style celebrity chef, Hilditch is a lost child too, his urge to kill rooted in a disturbed upbringing and his own motherlode of attachment issues.

Pain hangs heavy in his home, as conspicuous as the ladies underwear he drapes creepily around his kitchen. And his patient grooming of Felicia is the motor driving the plot, a languid narrative that ambles along like Hilditch’s antiquated Morris Minor, one of many instances of how the past is overpoweringly present.

Indeed, Felicia’s Journey feels very much like a period piece, despite fleeting appearances of the Rotunda, BT Tower and Spaghetti Junction in the grey skyline. From the 1950s furnishings and clothing in Hilditch’s home to the Irish flashbacks set dreamily amid ancient Celtic ruins, Egoyan’s movie feels trapped in a weird kind of time-warp, something accentuated by the stagnant minds of the characters, for whom life is a personal journey through hell where past deeds are too much of a burden to bear.

The city is a damaged, unforgiving place, cruelty and neglect bubbling away under the West Midlands ordinariness of gas holders, cooling towers and surburbia. Religion is ever-present too, expressed in the strict Catholicism of Felicia’s upbringing, the near-hagiographic portrayal of her suffering, the story’s powerful maternal figures and the Christian zealots with whom Felicia stays.

Like the two main characters, the pushy bible-bearers seem to be living on a different planet, preying on the emotionally vulnerable to find release from some deep-seated inner suffering. Their confrontation with Hilditch is the film’s best scene, part-tragic and part-comic, and marks the fulcrum on which the movie pivots towards its painful, inevitable climax.

As a thriller, Felicia’s Journey is only partly successful. The injections of suspense feel a little too clumsy, the threat almost too understated, and the Hitchcockian-style soundtrack somewhat at odds with the rest of the piece, all accompanied by a central performance from Hoskins that’s very enjoyable (Brummie accent included), but which comes perilously close to serving up wafers of ham.

It’s compulsive viewing though: a sober gaze at how adult selfishness destroys the lives of future generations. With its unswerving realism and rich air of psychological complexity, Egoyan’s film creeps steadily under the skin and, despite (or because of) being made by an Egyptian-born Canadian, it delivers the best use of Birmingham in modern cinema.  

There’s another reason why Felicia’s Journey is required viewing for Electrolyte readers. Mid-way through the film, Felicia traipses through the rain-swept pavements around New Street station, bolting for shelter in the entrance of a porn cinema which today houses our beloved Electric. The building only appears briefly, but it’s a telling scene nonetheless. As soon as she finds repose, a sleazy older man moves in: a perfect microcosm of a story about how the young suffer at the hands of their would-be protectors.

If Felicia’s Journey has a final destination, it’s a sense of wasted potential, a notion made more poignant (for Brummies at least) by being set in a city so often overlooked and marginalised. Just like the eggs in the cabinet that never hatch, and the unborn child in Felicia’s womb that never has a chance, there’s promise everywhere in this world, if only we summon the love and creativity to nurture it properly. The once-dilapidated porn cinema you might now be sitting in, resurrected by grown-ups who genuinely care about what they’re doing, is one wonderful example.