"FELICIA'S JOURNEY" is so elegantly layered and emotionally restrained, it makes the horror at its center all the more disturbing.

In Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan's hypnotic onion of a movie, each scene is a peeling away of innocence, not only for the Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) of the story, but for the audience.

It's as though we are implicated for watching, for enjoying the director's deceptively casual style, for not willing Felicia to heed the warning signs and for finding a disconcerting empathy for Mr. Hilditch.

Who is this Mr. Hilditch? He's the one at the center of the story. As played by Bob Hoskins in what could be the finest performance of his career, he's the genial catering manager of a factory in England's industrial midlands.

A short, endearing figure in a white coat, his ears covered with industrial protective earphones, he takes great pains to ensure the food served to the workers is more than just nourishment.

Food should be served with "caring hands, so that people feel loved," he tells a salesman who has just outlined an impressive proposal to fully automate the company's well-staffed kitchen operation.

When Hilditch meets and offers to help Felicia -- a 19-year-old Irish girl searching for her lost boyfriend -- we see those caring hands working double time. But in Egoyan's chilly, leisurely drama, we learn the details in tantalizingly incremental morsels.

Felicia has come over by ferry in search of Johnny Lysaght (Peter McDonald), who promised he'd send her his address when he got to England. He never did. So here she is now, trying to locate the lawn-mower factory where Johnny said he would be working.

To Hilditch, she's a lost soul in need of gentle intervention. To Felicia, Mr. Hilditch exudes security and friendliness. They belong together, it would seem. But are we watching a saint at work or someone with a far different agenda?

In Egoyan's vision -- less explicit than William Trevor's in his novel of the same name -- the difference is subtle but crucial. As with "The Sweet Hereafter" and, indeed, all of his work, Egoyan forces us into deep intimacy with the nicest people's darkest moments and the darkest people's nicest moments. This movie is about the twilight zone of the soul.

Hilditch's soul has twilight to spare. He lives alone in a house that is a shrine to his late mother, Gala (Arsinee Khanjian), a onetime chef and television celebrity.

He spends much of his time watching videotapes of her old shows, which feature Gala as a sort of culinary Joan Crawford with the chubby young Hilditch in a Desi Arnaz Jr. role. Hilditch reverently follows the recipes on her program, trussing up lamb ribs or pinching the cold, greasy skin of a turkey before stuffing it.

These strangely intimate moments -- the dead mother and the overgrown, well-tailored mama's boy connecting beyond the grave through videotape -- would be comical if they weren't so tender and eerie. And if they didn't eloquently imply the trauma he has experienced during his childhood.

If Egoyan's movie is a more uplifting, transformative version of Trevor's novel, it is no less entrancing or richly drawn. And as the movie's central character, Hoskins is a master chef of nuance, whose expression and demeanor can switch from heartbreakingly helpless to rigidly controlled in the razor-sharp twinkling of an eye. Like Felicia, you find yourself mesmerically affected by his soothing, yet disturbing bedside manner as he promises to lift the weight of the world from her shoulders. Caught in Hoskins's gaze, it seems so easy and right to surrender.

FELICIA'S JOURNEY (PG-13, 114 minutes) -- Contains macabre, disturbing material. At the Cineplex Odeon Janus 3.