Both thriller and comedy, Hallam Foe is an enticing coming-of-age film about love, grief and redemption. Directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam), and based on the novel by Peter Jinks, it’s dominated by Jamie Bell’s exciting performance as the title character – a screwed-up teenager addicted to voyeurism.
Grieving over the mysterious death of his mother, Hallam is an almost feral creature, hunting his prey on the family estate in Scotland. Rejecting the luxury of his stately home, he lives instead in a tree house, surrounded by his mother’s photos, clothes, even her make-up. Obsessed by sex, he compulsively spies on his family and neighbours, furiously detailing his observations in a diary. His father (Ciaran Hinds) has re-married after his wife’s death; his new bride and former secretary (Clare Forlani) is a gorgeous, enigmatic temptress. Shamed by an erotic encounter with her, Hallam flees his home for anonymity in Edinburgh, where fate leads him to Kate (Sophia Myles), a woman who looks almost identical to his mother. He soon charms her into offering him a job as a kitchen porter at the hotel where she works. Hallam takes to life on Edinburgh’s stunning rooftops, spying on Kate in her home, piecing together the minutiae of her personal life, desperate to be near her.
A humorous current runs through the film, from the opening credits (animated by the much loved off-kilter illustrator David Shrigley) through to the very end. But at its heart, Hallam Foe is something of a thriller. Echoes of Hitchcock permeate the film’s style and narrative. In Edinburgh, Hallam’s pursuit of Kate, and her blonde hair, pulled back tightly, recall Kim Novak in Vertigo; so too do the vertiginous views of the city as Hallam clambers over the slate rooftops to spy on her. There is also something Rear Window-like in his insatiable voyeurism; not physically bound in a wheelchair as Jimmy Stewart is, he’s handicapped instead by his grief. Spying on other people is Hallam’s way of escape, of submerging his pain over the loss of his mother. But it’s also an addiction that spirals out of control; seeing only fragments of the big picture, Hallam, like Stewart, comes to suspect that a murder’s been committed. The suspicion that his stepmother might be involved in his mother’s death becomes an obsession, tormenting him until he has no choice but to act. The film unravels, like Hitchock’s movies, as part mystery, part thriller, and part romance.
The claustrophobic camerawork forces us to see through Hallam’s eyes. On the family estate, sweeping views of the Highlands are almost conspicuous by their absence. Rather Hallam’s world is close up and uncompromising: writhing, naked bodies are seen through an entangled web of trees; the glassy lake where Hallam’s mother drowned dominates the field of vision, forcing Hallam and the audience to confront the mystery of her death. We see Kate as Hallam sees her, framed by windows, seen through binoculars. But instead of making us feel alienated by Hallam’s behaviour, Mackenzie compels us to share in his pain and desire. Though Hallam’s voyeurism is pathological, his violation of privacy frightening and disturbing, Bell imbues his character with a humour and wit that makes him both charming and vulnerable, even innocent. He’s an outsider, just a teenager trying to fit in.
While Bell so thoroughly dominates the core of the film, the characters on the periphery somewhat languish in their supporting roles. The women are especially two-dimensional, and come perilously close to serving as little more than the ‘mother, sister, whore’ triptych all too often found in popular culture. Hallam’s devotion to his own mother borders on the religious, while the villainous stepmother uses sex to manipulate both Hallam and his father to achieve her own ends. Kate is both enigmatic and vulnerable, an object of desire who is characterized by her affair with a married man and her vampish attitude towards sex. Though Hallam’s relationship with her is central to the film, her character is never really flushed out – would he fall in love with her if she didn’t resemble his mother? It’s a shame that the female roles aren’t stronger, and more complex, but it’s a common fault, and one that Mackenzie is also guilty of in Young Adam.
Though the film celebrates Edinburgh, this is one British film that is not trying to earn its success by being a tourist promotion for the UK, unlike the objectionable Notting Hill, or even Woody Allen’s Match Point, which pander to American audiences by creating a false, idealised view of Britain. Instead, Hallam Foe is a touching, funny and intelligent portrayal of a teenager stumbling through his grief in the cold, inhospitable climate of a grey country.