Atom Egoyan’s cold, still filmmaking traffics in the music of chance; his detached camera shows the surface ripples of lives transformed inexorably by a monstrous undertow more felt than seen. That cinematic style demands stories that similarly resonate and build by accumulation, like 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, made all the more haunting by Egoyan’s matter-of-fact vision of the poetic and the tragic. In William Trevor’s creepy novel Felicia’s Journey, Egoyan has found a text too miserable and nuanced even for his allusive camera—too literal a tool to focus on this subtle story.
Felicia’s Journey tracks the paths of two characters on their way to fatefully colliding—the fawnlike pregnant Irish teenager of the title (Elaine Cassidy) and the fussy catering manager Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), who has a richly sinister solitary life and an interest in lost girls. The story of how Felicia got this far—from Ireland to an English industrial town—is shown in friendly and sympathetic flashbacks. Crippled by naivete, the gently smiling heroine is wooed and seduced by a local Lothario, Johnny. Even more damaging to Felicia than her desire to be loved is the limited amount of worldliness necessary to exist in a dreary Irish village with no jobs, no privacy, and nothing to do. When Johnny takes off for what he claims is a good job, rumors that he is actually joining the British army infuriate Felicia’s father, who thought she was a “hoor” even before she got impregnated by a traitor. Convinced that Johnny is actually working in a lawn-mower factory, Felicia sets off to find him and tell him of her condition.
Hilditch, meanwhile, scolds and intimidates the worshipful staff of the hospital whose kitchen he oversees and in the evening returns to an opulent house where he creates elaborate meals with the help of a ’50s TV cooking show. Hilditch, too, has a past, but it isn’t by crystalline expository scenes that Egoyan reveals it, rather through memories as cramped and airless as Hilditch’s overstuffed furnishings. The TV chef, Gala, was Hilditch’s mother, a simpering French B-star of her time, curvaceous and vulgarly beautiful, who instilled in her roly-poly son an appreciation of fine food and a fetishized, indelible horror of her bosomy discipline. Hilditch also spends time musing over his collection of videotapes, each labeled with a girl’s name, each shot from within his car.
What Hilditch does with the wayward females he befriends, and what Gala’s smother-and-punish method of parenting means to his current obsessions, is not made clear. His house is as fusty and creepy as a stuffed vulture, decorated in dated brocades of sickly green and yellow, with heavy curtains and a continuous soundtrack of saccharine vocal hits—”My Special Angel” being the scariest—on the stereo. Hoskins’ overdeliberate vocal cadences and pudgy, precise fingers cast a shadow over Hilditch’s courtly advances to the clearly lost Felicia, but despite the actor’s hard work, he’s stuck with a script that tells us too little before telling us too much.
Slowly, Hilditch takes Felicia in, first giving her rides and keeping a solicitous eye on her routes around a strange town. She bounces from one keeper to another, meeting up with a group of ecstatic God-botherers whom she alienates after a misunderstanding. Eventually, she winds up staying with Hilditch, still determinedly in search of her rascal boyfriend, just at the time her protector is ready to crack or crack up. The film begins to fall apart when Hilditch and Felicia are thrown into close quarters—he has to either attack her or punish himself for his sins against things innocent. The long climax jars against the film’s subtlety, with Hilditch going incontrovertibly nuts and Felicia’s usual dilatory understanding of the situation at hand going into underdrive. But a rapturous, odd, and convincing ending redeems the silly struggle. The film should end here, but Egoyan has tacked on a coda, in which Felicia’s slightly exasperating naivete is revealed to imply purity of heart—an uncharacteristically sentimental implication in a movie that wisely refuses to simplify the complex motives of human beings, evil or good.
Grand, elegant, and full of mischief, Sleepy Hollow is Tim Burton’s latest, fanciest, and most entertaining movie since Beetlejuice. He adds no pretentious frights or if-we-knew-then extraneous meaning to his adaptation of the Washington Irving classic; it’s more of an homage than a retelling. This home-grown American haunting is mostly good enough as it is—it has deep, corny roots that render it impossible to take seriously (after all, Burton is redoing the thing after Disney put its imprint on it), but “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” doesn’t have to be serious to be enjoyable.
Burton begins by styling the story as a patented contemporary crime drama—Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is the maverick, enlightened New York City cop on the outs with his hidebound superiors over his lack of superstition and interest in technology. When he’s exiled from the big melting pot to the isolated American wilderness of Sleepy Hollow, the old-world scares meet modern science on a very unlevel playing field. Depp’s faith in science falls away, as does his debonair faeade—a good ghoulish shriek in the face, Burton seems to be saying, gets more done than any microscope.
Then again, Crane’s self-invented forensic instruments are a demented collection of Jules Verne-like twisted metal and weird orbs, one-lensed goggles and mysterious powder vials. (Depp, as usual, looks very pretty in Burton’s mad-scientist facial bondage.) Science, of course, is no use against the supernatural, and although Crane is unconvinced there isn’t a human being doing Sleepy Hollow’s beheading, there are enough unexplainable events to give him the towering willies.
Not much of a policeman, Crane. Sleepy Hollow’s citizens continue to lose their heads after his arrival, and his detecting powers only lead to more and more horrible revelations. He witnesses one of the killings and is soon cowering amid his bedclothes, squeaking that there’s a headless horseman on the loose. Once suavely interrupting a party at the household of local landowner Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) and his daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci, badly miscast), now Crane faints at blood and wakes up screaming from nightmares that may be memories. Depp’s girlish histrionics and ironic line readings amid the misty supernaturalists are very endearing.
“You’re just in time to have your head cut off,” cackles a character of flesh-and-blood evil. And yes, indeedy, the skulls do fly. The film gets lots of mileage out of eye-rolling heads and neck stalks and spurting blood and the use of crimson as a decorative motif that is less than subliminal. But it’s Tim Burton-gory, meaning it’s also Tim Burton-scary—playful and enthused. The town’s atmosphere is as controlled as the tabletop village in Beetlejuice, with skies that are always lowering while dark drifts of mist waft over the gray steeples. Burton seems to have traded his worst instincts—missing the point in favor of easy wackiness (Ed Wood), mistaking visually unintelligible for psychologically dark (Batman), biting off less than he can chew (Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!)—for his grandest imaginings. CP