Hallam Foe (2007)

Director: David Mackenzie

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Kathryn Ware

Freud would have a field day with Hallam Foe. Two years after the death of his mother, 17 year old Hallam spends much of his time creeping down alleys, lurking in doorways and windows spying on neighbors, friends, and family, peering at them with his binoculars and scribbling notes and drawings in his journals. He seems to focus a lot on breasts. He sleeps in a tree house under a blown-up photograph of his mother, uses her make-up to war paint his face, and occasionally wears her favorite dress.

When we first meet Hallam (Jamie Bell), he’s spying on two teenagers having sex in the forest below his tree house. He dons a badger skin headdress, streaks his face with red lipstick, and swings down on the amorous couple with a war whoop. You could say he has a few issues.

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Hallam lives on an estate in the Scottish Highlands owned by his father, a successful architect played by the always capable Ciaran Hinds. Shortly after his wife’s death two years earlier, Hallam’s father married his beautiful secretary Verity (Claire Forlani, who expertly underplays her role as the evil stepmother.) Since then, Hallam has retreated from the world, nurturing a hatred for his stepmother, whom he believes caused his mother’s suicide. After his sister leaves home, Hallam perceives Verity’s offer to find him a job in London as an attempt to get rid of him, and he announces to them both that he won’t be going to college. He plans to stay right at home.

Soon after, Hallam’s tree house shrine is trashed by the two teens he’d earlier interrupted in the forest. The padlocked trunk with his most prized possession, including his journals, headdress and mother’s belongings, is untouched, and he moves it into the house for safe keeping. When Verity finds the keys, she breaks into Hallam’s trunk. Armed with copies of the journal’s more damning passages, she climbs into the tree house to confront Hallam, and Hallam Foe takes its first disturbing turn. Events transpire that compel Hallam to leave.

Friendless and homeless, Hallam spends the first of many nights prowling the rooftops of Edinburgh. The next morning, peering off the roof for a way back down, he catches sight of Kate (Sophia Myles), who reminds him of—you guessed it—his mother. He follows her, slipping in through the door when she enters a hotel service entrance.

Hallam%202.jpgHallam may be a Peeping Tom and a recluse, but he’s also bright and charming. Kate is the HR manager of the hotel, and Hallam talks his way into a job working in the kitchen. Smitten by Kate, he resumes his voyeuristic habit, following her after work to see where she lives and climbing up and over the building to spy on her through windows and skylights. He sneaks into the hotel clock tower where he finds a perfect view across the rooftops to Kate’s apartment. Hallam sets up residence in the clock tower to spy on Kate with his binoculars through a crack in the clock face.

While admittedly creepy, Hallam seems harmless enough—a danger more to himself than to others. He’s in love, and what better way for him to move on—unless, of course, you hold it against him that the girl bears a startling resemblance to his own mother.

Hallam Foe, written by David Mackenzie and Ed Whitmore, and based on the book by Peter Jinks, succeeds by continually pulling back from the brink of conventional romantic drama. Just as an interjection of humor and lightheartedness leads you to believe things just might be okay, that Hallam isn’t such a troubled bloke after all, the film abruptly pulls the rug out, revealing some new facet of Hallam’s dark, impulsive nature.

As the film progresses, Hallam does well in his job. His relationship with Kate develops. But anyone with romantic feelings for a woman who resembles his mother, who spends every free moment spying on her through binoculars, and who still harbors the certainty that his stepmother drugged his mother and drowned her in the loch, is just a time bomb waiting to go off. When he does, the film runs its greatest risk of veering off the tracks into over-the-top melodrama; thanks to Jamie Bell’s strong performance, it never does. Bell anchors the film with a believable mixture of maturity and immaturity that makes the character of a boy mourning his mother while on the verge of becoming a man a compelling and sympathetic character.

Hallam Foe is as far from a traditional coming-of-age tale as it is from the usual romantic drama. It successfully weaves dysfunctional family issues and twisted psychosexual drama with a dash of humor and fine location shooting to make for a complex personal story and an absorbing night at the movies. Whether or not Hallam has successfully “moved on” by the film’s conclusion is for each viewer to decide. l

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