ATOM EGOYAN is one of the few filmmakers whose explication of his movies is as interesting as the films themselves. In Paris to watch his wife, actor Arsinee Khanjian, in a stage version of "Dancing at Lughnasa," he called in to share a few thoughts about "Felicia's Journey."
Egoyan's latest movie (see review on Page 49), which opens Friday at the Cineplex Odeon Janus, is the kind of precise, subtle filmmaking you rarely see any more; the kind of movie that asks you to make your own judgment about characters whose morality is not clear-cut. Hollywood movies -- inflated with such human dirigibles as Demi Moore or Brad Pitt -- leave little doubt about who's good, who's bad, and who's young and beautiful. But Egoyan's films intentionally wander through the uncertain terrain of human behavior. His characters are eccentric, strange and unusually affecting.
"Felicia's Journey," an elegantly mounted drama that steers almost coquettishly around the thriller genre, probes the unusual, possibly dangerous relationship between Mr. Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), an apparently good-natured catering manager, and Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), a lost Irish girl who accepts his offer of help. The movie may arrive at the same conclusion as a Hollywood thriller, but its journey has a far different texture. In a sense, the movie's an unthriller.
"I think the best way of reading the film is not to see it as thriller but as a piece of drama," said Egoyan, the Egyptian-born director of "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter."
"My aim, always, is to try to find a way of telling a story that reflects how these people experience the world and see themselves."
The two characters, Egoyan explained, feel a semiconscious connection because "they are two characters in a state of denial."
Felicia, who has grown up in a small Irish village with an English-hating father and a grandmother who speaks Gaelic, lives in a "strange world where communication and history are presented in oral tradition." Hilditch, who perpetually watches old videotapes of his late mother -- a television chef -- "seems to be lost in the '50s and a nostalgic, sentimental place."
As the two characters become closer to each other, Felicia faces increasing danger. But at the same time, the audience's intimacy with Hilditch's very human foibles increases.
"To me," said Egoyan, "the most satisfying response is when people feel or question whether it's permissible to feel sympathy toward [Hilditch] in the end. . . . It really had to do with the degree he was conscious of his own actions."
As an interesting side note: Adapting William Trevor's novel, Egoyan made a conscious decision not to include certain traumatic aspects of Hilditch's childhood, which would have made the character "thunderingly reductive." In his partial reconstruction of Hilditch, he created the character of Gala (played with Mommie Dearest presence by Khanjian), Hilditch's mother, as the television personality.
Without even knowing it, he found his character had remarkable affinities with Fanny Craddock, a longtime British TV chef who, Egoyan remarked, abandoned two children to pursue her career -- only to hire two stage children to pose as her own for the show. But don't look for a Craddock biopic from Egoyan. For the director, who did not even know about Craddock until recently, it was enough to appreciate the synchronicity.
"I invented Gala," said Egoyan, "and I found Fanny."