[5 September 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You’ll soon find someone to help you iron out those creases of yours.
—Kate (Sophia Myles)
“Get out of my room, Hallam.” Interrupted during a depilatory session in her bathroom, Lucy (Lucy Holt) is exasperated. Her brother Hallam (Jamie Bell) seems always to be lurking—a point made by the pitchy camerawork that grants a decidedly disturbing view of her briefly intimate moment.
Hallam’s peeping is a key theme in Hallam Foe (inexplicably retitled for U.S distribution). Even more odiously, the film repeatedly aligns your perspective with his. It’s not that you feel sympathetic, exactly, or even that you come to understand his habit. But you see what he sees and see him seeing too—through binoculars and tree branches, narrow doorways and broken windows. Yes, he’s troubled. Not only has the 17-year-old recently lost his mother—ostensibly to suicide—but his father Julian (Cirián Hands) also has a new, perpetually tense young wife, who happens to be his former secretary, Verity (Claire Forlani). Hallam suspects she had a hand in his mother’s death (his devotion to his mummy is underscored by his keeping a gigantic photo portrait on the wall over his bed, so he can tell her goodnight). But this is only icing on the Oedipal cake, for he resents Verity’s very presence (noting she could be mistaken for “a prostitute”) while he can’t stop him himself from spying on her assignations with his dad—again, through barely cracked-open doors and slatty blinds.
Donning face paint and a skunk head, portrayed as lost and angry during montages under indie-rock tunes (by Orange Juice, Clinic, Junior Boys, and Franz Ferdinand, among others), Hallam is undone when Lucy leaves: she’s off to school, packing her bags into a taxi as he watches from an upstairs window. As if catching himself, he suddenly realizes that he’ll miss her, and bolts down the steps and driveway, too late to say goodbye, the shot of him receding in the cab’s rear window underscoring his desolation and sense of defeat. Such images—frames within frames, spaces compressed, incessantly mobile frames—repeatedly designate Hallam’s state of mind. Soon after he announces to his father that he plans to skip college and stay “right here” (“I’m sorry if that screws up your plans”), he’s confronted by Verity—with his salacious diaries in hand—in the tree-house he considers his sanctuary. The yucky next move is predictable: they engage in a bit of solemn, heavy-breathing violence and then sex. If he hasn’t screwed his mother, exactly, he’s done a foul thing. As Verity puts it n her way out the door, “It’s time to fly the nest, Hallam, and I think you know that.”
Yes, even Hallam knows it now. And so, as he slams his head into his tree-house floor in loud, extreme close-up, the scene cuts to a train roaring down low-angled tracks. His flight to Edinburgh leads to a job as a hotel kitchen worker, alongside a hard-faced fellow, Raymond (Maurice Roëves), who announces, “I killed a man once, smashed his skull on a pier. Just so you know.” not only does Raymond’s jaunty self-characterization bring to mind both of the previous films in David Mackenzie’s “sex trilogy” (Young Adam and Asylum), but it also lays out the gray moral terrain Hallam has entered. Scuttling along dirty streets, hiding in dark alleyways, the kid is now in an element he might call his.
This immersion is affirmed by the fact that the woman who hires him at the hotel, Kate (Sophia Myles), looks exactly like his dead mother (Myles has, in fact, posed for mom’s photos). Having heaved himself from the frying pan into a grim, gray fire, Hallam is delirious. Washing dishes y day, he spends his off-hours stalking Kate, watching from across streets, an abandoned clock tower (using high-powered binoculars), as well as her own apartment building rooftop (through a convenient skylight), as she takes kick-boxing classes and has crude sex with a married boyfriend, who happens to be her boss, Alasdair (the impeccably unpleasant Jamie Sives).
Unaware of her hire’s obsession, Kate comes along for a celebration of his 18th birthday, attended by floor manager Andy (Ewan Bremner, characteristically perverse and not on screen nearly enough). When Andy exits and the drinking begins in earnest, Kate confesses to falling for one of the most complex pickup lines in history: “I want to suck the dick of the last guy who fucked you.” Perhaps Hallam is growing up after all: even he wonders how she could have gone to bed with this guy. Hallam goes on to lie about being a virgin (by way of explaining why he’s not responding to Kate’s sexy striptease and slide into his lap), then finds it in himself to revel in a lovely afternoon tryst with Mummy-Kate, his face aglow and his dreams—at long last—fulfilled. That they find such ecstasy after comparing names for their privates (“my schlong,” “my pussy,” “my home,” “my stick,” “my gash,” “my bat,” “my muff”) only makes this connection sillier.
But even as Hallam Foe appears in this instant to deliver a happy ending for its titular sufferer, the rug is already being readies for quick removal. Exaggerating and satirizing the maturation process so frequently celebrated in more mundane, less arch narratives, Mackenzie’s familial melodrama continues to pitch from one extreme to another. Hallam still needs to settle accounts with Julius and Verity (who snarks about him finding happiness with a “lookalike”), as well as have it out with Kate about the stalking. Her initial solution—he must confess to her all his bad deeds while standing before her naked—is enchantingly porn-star-meets-schoolmarmish. It also makes you realize that the movie has missed an opportunity. Forget his all-too-regular boy development. What’s Kate doing when he’s not looking?