Film: Egoyan's take on Everyman

Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Felicia's Journey is that rare thing - a close collaboration between director and novelist.
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There's a heavy, louring sky above the Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge this morning, but the filming on the handkerchief-sized, quasi- bucolic green in front of the grim antenatal block rolls on. As long as there's decent light, and the rain holds off, the director of Felicia's Journey, Cairo-born, Canadian-raised director, Atom Egoyan, stays happy.

"Take seven!" shouts the first assistant director. The camera tracks across. Egoyan, leaning on the arm of a chair whose canvas back is emblazoned with his own name in gold, stares intently into two monitors, scratching from time to time at a head of unruly black curls. It's a whole morning's concentrated work for just minutes of finished product.

From a few feet away, I'm watching Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) being filmed. He's sitting on a park bench under a huge tree in a shortie Fifties mac, big hands locked together in front of him, staring down. The scene, and its peculiar, isolating tensions, reminds me of the very last scene in The Butcher Boy. Hilditch's suit is drab, turd-brown, his tie carefully centred. His nose looks so broad it might have been hammered flat to his face in the course of 15 rounds. The fleshy ears are enormous. But it's the look on his face that counts - intense, grim, calculated, emotionally frozen. It's a look to freeze the blood.

Next to him sits the fragile, 17-year-old Felicia, played by Elaine Cassidy, the 18-year-old Irish-born actress who left school in rural Ireland just three months ago. This is already her second film and, if she succeeds, it's the one that will make her reputation. The pair of them look weirdly anachronistic, as if they're locked into time-bubbles of their own devising. What are they doing here together?

The film is based on William Trevor's Whitbread Award-winning novel of the same name. It's the story of a young and naive Irish girl of strict Catholic upbringing who gets pregnant by a British soldier, and flees to London in pursuit of him. And there she falls into the clutches of a monster - Hilditch, a Brummie serial killer who also happens, by turns, to be a gentle, compassionate man and a pacifist too. In this scene, Hilditch is trying to gain Felicia's trust and affection. He has brought her to the hospital in his old, bile-green Morris Minor. His wife is desperately ill, he tells her. She may die. It's all a lie. He has no wife. Then he broaches the real purpose of their visit: an abortion for Felicia.

During the break between scenes, I ask Egoyan about his relationship with William Trevor. Directors and novelists aren't generally known to get along too well together - look at Ian McEwan's experiences, for example. Novelists so often feel they've been misrepresented, and their dearest darlings betrayed, by the big-screen treatment. (Egoyan wrote the screenplay too - as he did for his last film, Sweet Hereafter, which was based on a novel by Russell Banks.)

Egoyan speaks with an impassioned concentration, as much with his weaving hands as his voice. There was no question of keeping the novelist out of the picture. He'd immediately called him to discuss the problems of transposing the burdensome psychological complexities of the book to the big screen, the difficulties of rendering motivation and, more generally, the book's particularly elusive narrative qualities. There was no warfare between novelist and director. Above all, he wanted to honour the book's spirit and to use the extraordinary resource of a living novelist.

"At first," he told me, "I wanted to set the book in Canada, perhaps in an isolated Catholic community in Quebec. The girl, having been made pregnant by an English-Canadian soldier, would then have travelled across country to, for example, Victoria, the town where I grew up, which, in the 1960s, was rather like the last bastion of the British Empire."

Trevor knows Canada well, and was intrigued by that idea - but the contract insisted that the locations in the film had to be those of the book.

But what exactly did Egoyan gain from this collaboration with the novel and its author? "I had the gift of characters that I could never have imagined, and the full scope of the novel's detail and clarity. It gave me direct access to people outside my own experience... I admire so much the ways in which, in his short stories in particular, people find rituals for dealing with their neuroses. The story has to burst, and people are left hanging, at some point of pain or despair..."

And why Hoskins for the part of Hilditch? Egoyan threw his arms out wide. "Because he is so emotionally accessible and available. He is an Everyman in this culture..."

After the break for lunch, the skies open and I have a chance to have a conversation with Everyman himself in his homely trailer in the carpark.

The hailstones beat down on the roof as we speak, sipping all the while from plastic beakers full of Bob Hoskins's own special "concoction" - a mixture of carrot and apple juice together with "just a touch a something else that'll kick in, in about half and hour," he tells me.

I ask him to give me a snatch of Hilditch's Brummie accent. Someone has told me it's incomprehensible. Hoskins does it, then says, relaxing back into the more usual effin' London vernacular: "The main trouble is that it's such an ugly accent. And it's not particularly threatening either. It's a whingeing accent more than anything else..." He screws up his face until he looks like a natural-born Brummie whinger.

Hilditch is, of course, terribly threatening, but in a calculating and manipulative way. There is much gentleness and kindness on the surface of this monster. How did Hoskins get his measure?

"I read the book, ages ago, and loved it," he replies. "In fact, I think I've read four of Trevor's books, and on the page Hilditch seems, well, impossible. He just doesn't seem to exist in psychological terms."

But somehow he and Egoyan came to an understanding that they could work it out together. And how does Egoyan's manner compare with that of other directors?

"He's both intense and gentle..."

Hoskins gets more and more vehement as he speaks. The drumming of hailstones on the trailer's paper-thin roof gets more and more vehement too.

Is he really Everyman, I ask him? And, if that was so, did that mean that there was some of Hilditch inside him too?

"Well..." he beats at his chest, "every part I've ever done has all come from me... yes, every part I've ever played, and I can't do it unless that happens, which must mean, I suppose, that somewhere inside me there must be this... Well, I don't know about that, but this is definitely the most difficult part I've ever done, and I'm a lot of things but I'm definitely not a fuckin' serial killer. I'm not a gentle, pacificist soul who kills women because he gets lonely."

He wipes a thin smear of Bob's own special concoction from the edge of his surprisingly delicate lips. "There's no denying it though: every day's a day of discovery..."

`Felicia's Journey' will be showing at the Edinburgh Festival and will be released 8 October