"Felicia's Journey" offers something new, at least: the figure of the sociopathic killer as lovelorn lonely guy who only needs a nice hug to set him free.

This creepy but compelling image is at the center of the film that director Atom Egoyan chose to make after the sublime "The Sweet Hereafter." Like "Hereafter," it is derived from a distinguished text, a prize-winning novel by the highly regarded Irish novelist William Trevor. Its pedigree--including the Whitbread Prize--is unassailably literary, and what distinguishes this serial killer story from many other serial killer stories is what separates serious fiction from pulp fiction: the question of motive. Trevor, unlike, say, Thomas Harris, is at pains to discover what turns a man into a monster and not terribly interested in the flamboyance of that monstrosity.

It is this line that Egoyan follows, and it brings him to the bizarre moral proposition that the slaughterer of at least 10 young girls in England is as much a victim as a villain. You cannot hate Mr. Hilditch. Poor Mr. Hilditch grew up in an unusual milieu. That is, on television. His mother, the domineering, sexy, beautiful Gala (Arsinee Khanjian), was one of the first TV gourmet cooks, back in the old black-and-white days of the '50s. With her dark French charisma and her gigantic maracas, she became a media star, even to the point of endorsing products like a vegetable mulcher. But she also used the son who loved her so desperately, turning him into a little fatty-cakes buffoon. She'd stuff food down his throat, and when he gagged, the camera zoomed in and a nation laughed. See little boy frow up!

Now he's grown up into a fastidious little man who appears to work as the director of food services for a huge factory. He is beloved, if a little weird, as he pads around the plant with little pans of sample food for the hard-hat-wearing forge guys. And how is the bread pudding today, David? Um (gulp), it's fine, Mr. Hilditch.

What nobody knows is that Mr. Hilditch--played with something like Richard Attenborough's smarmy pinkishness by Bob Hoskins--goes home, puts on his apron and vids of his ma's old show, and fixes the meals of the '50s under her guidance with their rich creams and their gleaming breasts of poultry. In his mind, she's somehow still alive, and when he eats, he still occasionally gags. Then he goes out and kills a girl.

The usage of the videotape is interesting, for Mr. Hilditch is a fastidious student of the vid. He has his mother's all arranged by chronology (it's not specified but, yes, these are probably videotapes of kinescopes, since videotape wasn't in wide use in the '50s, so please don't send me any letters), and his experiences with each girl neatly catalogued alphabetically. He may not even know he kills them, at least not in the front part of his brain.

What brings all this to the fore is the arrival of a new girl. This is poor Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), an Irish teenager with her own sad story. Seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a young lout, the poor dear has, even worse, been exiled by her fierce father, because the boy who did her went and, rumor has it, joined the British army, which Dad regards as an act of treason. Now Felicia is over here--the Leeds area--looking for him, though she has no address or phone and, in fact, doesn't even know he's in the service.

At first Felicia is just like the others, easily picked up and manipulated by Hilditch under the guise of his kindness, even as he's veering ever closer to adding her to his tote board. But Felicia is somehow different, more resilient, less pathetic. Mr. Hilditch responds to her more deeply; she stirs something in him he thought long dead; that awakening is the thrust of the movie.

For the record, Egoyan uses the same trick here that he used in "The Sweet Hereafter," the buried fairy tale. In "Hereafter," it was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who drew the children from the village to a hole in the mountain (which was a hole in the ice). Here the ur-story is Bluebeard, the fearsome French nobleman who, it is claimed, murdered his wives in a secret room that he kept locked up. A new wife arrived and was forbidden to open the locked room. But she had to.

There is indeed a locked room in "Felicia's Journey," which she unlocks, but more to the point, it's his locked heart that she liberates.

Felicia's Journey (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual suggestion and intense situations.

CAPTION: Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy in a classic tale of girl meets epicure sociopath.