A warped coming-of-age tale that connects courtesy of the unfussy straightforwardness and charm of its lead performances, British import Mister Foe delivers audiences a much different portrait of star Jamie Bell than American audiences will remember from his feel-good debut film, Billy Elliot.
Hallam Foe (Bell) is a troubled young man whose penchant for voyeurism and regressive dress-up paradoxically reveals his darkest fears and his most peculiar desires. A 17-year-old misfit, Hallam spends lonely days spying on others at the Scottish Highlands estate of his father (Ciarán Hinds), haunted by his mother’s suicide. When his beautiful new stepmother Verity (Claire Forlani) starts asserting herself with respect to his father’s business affairs, Hallam begins to suspect that maybe she even played a hand in his mother’s death.
Confusing matters even more for Hallam, he finds himself attracted and repelled by Verity in equal measure. When the tension brewing between the two erupts, Hallam runs away, fleeing the countryside for the big city. With no money and no friends to speak of, he crashes down into reality in Edinburgh. Adept at fading into the background and peering in on the lives of others to escape his own every day life, Hallam soon becomes obsessed with Kate (Sophia Myles, above), a hotel middle manager who bears an uncanny resemblance to his deceased mother. Landing a job in the hotel’s kitchen, Hallam finds himself drawn to the older Kate but unable to confess his secrets to her. When the reality of life back home finally catches up with him, Hallam is faced with betraying the memory of the mother he longs for or using his one last chance to grow up.
Co-written and directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam), Mister Foe trades in plenty of the filmmaker’s familiar staples (clutchy, inappropriate sex that’s hardly erotic or titillating; rain and/or water as a motif; hand-held camerawork and a paucity of color). Mackenzie is also keen on peddling half-frames — obscuring our view of Hallam, to parallel the blinkered fashion in which he views the world. This lurking, nonjudgmental camerawork also has the benefit of muddying the narrative waters with regards to Hallam’s feelings about Verity, and some of the more radical assertions about her nature — a facet of the narrative that is otherwise, through no particular fault of Hinds or Forlani, the weakest part of the movie.
Bell has played wounded, emotionally withdrawn figures before, as in The Chumscrubber, but there’s a core warmth and decency to Hallam that here tugs one along, past some of the more outré inclusions of the story proper. A soundtrack powered by Franz Ferdinand, King Creosote, Orange Juice, Hood, Woodbine and other up-and-coming Brit rockers definitely helps lend Mister Foe (or Hallam Foe, as it was released elsewhere, a title deemed too abstruse for American audiences given the exotic nature of its name) a certain young-boy-in-the-big-city gravity and weight. Parts of the movie feel strangely Dickensian, other moments feel like a Smiths song come to life. Regardless, adolescence is a time when feelings often govern decisions more than reason, and Mister Foe is powered by that same sense of forceful capriciousness. Apart from some closure on the familial story strand that feels somewhat forcibly tacked on, that modus operandi serves this little curio quite well. (Magnolia, R, 95 minutes)