1999 is considered one of the strongest years of cinema in living memory. There will no doubt be countless articles in 2019 marking the 20th anniversaries of that year’s greatest hits and examining their impact and legacy.
But this column isn’t about those movies. This column is about the overlooked gems from 1999 — the weird, ungainly, or unjustly forgotten films that don’t usually get listed alongside the established classics, but which are just as deserving of their own retrospectives.
It wouldn’t be right to call the Felicia’s Journey one of the most critically overlooked film of 1999—in fact, far from it. From the time the British-Canadian produced film—adapted and directed by Atom Egoyan from William Trevor’s 1994 novel—debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, to its international release in the fall, it was met with near unanimous critical praise, receiving a number of Genie (Canada’s equivalent to the Oscars) nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay, which it won.
Yet of all the films to have found rank among the Best Of lists at the end of ‘99, Felicia’s Journey somehow stands amongst the most forgotten 20 years later.
The film centers on two lost souls whose paths cross in Birmingham, England: Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) is a pregnant teenager recently arrived from Ireland in search of her missing boyfriend, whom she believes is working in one of the city’s many industrial factories, but has, in fact, joined the British Army (about the worst thing a person from Northern Ireland could do at the time). Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) is a middle-aged catering manager who lives alone in the large house he grew up in with his late mother, a semi-famous French television chef who he remains enamored of all these years later.
Hilditch presents himself as the picture of friendliness and respectability in public, but in private, he is shown to be a lonely obsessive stuck in a disturbing state of arrested development. When he chances upon Felicia one afternoon, he insists on helping in her search for the father of her unborn child. His true motives, however, prove far more sinister, and as he constructs an elaborate fantasy that draws her closer to him, she (and we) begins to unmask the truly horrifying extent of his madness.
Although the film is bolstered by a couple of strong supporting roles, this is really a two-hander between Hoskins and Cassidy. Cassidy turns in a quiet and heartbreaking performance, finding the emotional depth within her laconic and ultra-reserved character and relaying it through small gestures and subtle responses. Hoskins, meanwhile, delivers career-best work, which is saying quite a lot, considering said career includes his lead performances in flat-out masterpieces: the British underworld crime dramas The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986), as well as, yes, 1988’s part-animated classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
In those films, Hoskins played a human tornado, all the violence and passion residing within him threatening to burst forth from his diminutive, stocky frame at any moment. Here, he retains and conveys that same undercurrent of danger, but filters it through an insurmountable wall of sadness and repression, infusing his monstrous character with a great sense of tragedy and humanity.
It’s that dichotomy that makes the film feel so singular. On paper, Felicia’s Journey would seem to invite comparisons to more baroque psychological horror films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, but it the actual movie feels a world apart (the closest film I could compare it to is David Cronenberg’s similarly underrated, similarly reserved English psychodrama Spider). It is a film of startling empathy, reminding us that even the most monstrous among us have souls (whatever you take that to mean).
Clearly, such a message makes for a hard sell. Critically acclaimed though it was upon release, Felicia’s Journey failed to attract a large audiences. Its tame PG-13 rating probably didn’t help—though it lacks any depictions of violence (or, for that matter, sex or strong language), such a rating belies just how mature and disturbing a film it is.
In some ways, the trajectory of the film mirrors that of its director. Atom Egoyan was one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers of the ‘90s, so it’s fitting he should end the decade on such a high (an especially impressive feat considering he’d delivered his other masterwork, The Sweet Hereafter, only two years prior). Unfortunately, his output since has left much to be desired. Still, given how strong a run he had back in the day, there’s no reason to think he can’t turn in more films on that level.
In the meantime, I’d more than settle for more people discovering, or rediscovering, Felicia’s Journey. That may prove difficult considering how hard the film is to find: A DVD exists, but it looks to be out of print, and it’s not currently streaming on any platform. Still, I’d encourage those interested in complex dramas and thrillers to go out of their way to track it down: like the film itself, your patience will be rewarded.