Movie Review: Mister Foe
By Matthew Huntley
September 15, 2008
Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) has a lot to work out. Like many people his age, he's weird, troubled, angry and hurting. In other words, he's a normal teenager - insecure, confused and often irrational. But that's not to say he's without ambition and self-reliant. In fact, the people closest to him often fail to give him enough credit.
Two years ago, Hallam's mother drowned in the loch behind his family's castle-like estate near Peebles, Scotland. Hallam blames his stepmother, Verity (Claire Forlani), and even suspects her of murder. But his father (Ciarán Hinds) doesn't buy it. He thinks it's time Hallam grew up and left the nest just like his sister, who's gone to university.
Hallam's plan is to stay put in the tree house his dad built for him, which has become his personal sanctuary and place where he can spy on others. Since his mother's death, Hallam has isolated himself here and developed a creepy scopophilia, which he simply refers to as "a hobby." His tree house is also the place where he keeps his mother's clothes, writes of sexual desires towards his stepmother and draws lipstick around his nipples.
All this makes it sound like Mister Foe is merely a sick and unnerving tale about a bizarre young man, but I ask you, when any one of us was 18-years-old, were we not just as strange, perhaps in other ways? Yes, the film is sick, unnerving and sometimes bizarre, but not in an offensive or unjustified way. I believed David Mackenzie's film, based on the novel by Peter Jinks, to be a sincere and fascinating exploration of Hallam Foe and this particular time in his life. It helps that Hallam is written and performed in such a way that we believe he could be a real person. I haven't read the novel, but I'm willing to bet Jinks was inspiration for Mackenzie to not scold or mock Hallam for who he is and instead view him as normal.
After a twisted event takes place between Hallam and his stepmother - in his tree house, no less - he hops on a train for Edinburgh. He gets a call from home but decides to toss out his cell phone's memory chip. All he takes with him is a backpack and he has no plans other than to explore and see what comes to him. When he gets to the city, he outruns a pair of cops and finds solace atop the roofs that overlook the city.
The next day, he notices a young blond woman, slightly older than himself, walking down the street. This is Kate (Sophia Myles), whom Hallam finds an immediate connection to because of her resemblance to his dead mother. He follows her and applies to be a kitchen porter in the hotel she manages, making the hotel's clock tower his personal home. It's also the perfect place where he can spy on Kate in her apartment with a pair of binoculars. One day, he breaks in and routinely watches her through skylights as she sleeps and has sex with her married colleague (Jamie Sives).
During a drunken night out to celebrate Hallam's birthday, he and Kate wind up at her place. When the idea of sex comes up, he says, "You don't have to do it. I just want to sleep with you so I can tell people." Their relationship becomes enigmatic because it's never made clear whether Hallam likes Kate for who she is or because she reminds him so much of his mother. There are moments to suggest both, but no matter the reason, they share some wonderful scenes together, including when they name off all the slang terms for their genitals.
To be fair, some moments in Mister Foe are unbelievable and inconsistent with the rest of the story, but these scenes were also beneficial because there was never a time when I felt I could predict where this film was taking me. Like the life of any teenager living with angst and confusion, it's unpredictable and exciting because we don't know where it's going, yet we remain fully invested because of the down-to-earth direction and performances.
At the center of it all is Jamie Bell, whose reputation as an actor suggests he's willing to take on experimental and risky projects. After Billy Elliot, The Chumbscrubber and Jumper (a so-so film in which he gave the best performance), it's clear Bell is an actor who simply loves to act, which is probably why he's so good at it. He's unafraid of what his role might make him endure. In Mister Foe, for instance, he's asked to perform in many compromising scenes and often be naked, but he never appears self-conscious and maintains his role, a test of a true character actor.
I'm sure many viewers will fight me on the idea that Hallam is normal, but remember this: many things we see Hallam do in this film are the things we're not supposed to see him do. In other words, we're "voyuering" a voyeur. True, Hallam's behavior does seem strange, but that's because he thinks no one is watching him. When we think we're alone, we don't act the same way as when people are observing us.
The ending of Mister Foe made me happy and sad. It's happy in the traditional sense because Hallam has grown and learned something about himself. We're confident he's able to move on with his life. At the same time, we see a part of him has left and won't be coming back - perhaps the adventurous, dangerous child within who will no longer be gazing at people on rooftops. It's sad because that's the Hallam we grew fond of and hoped would find his way towards absolution. Now that he's gone, it's time for the adult Hallam to begin his own adventures, which could prove to be just as bizarre, yet normal.