Tip-top performances, led by young British thesp Jamie Bell, and a deftly handled tone reflecting all the title teen’s confused emotions make “Hallam Foe” a viewing delight. Left-of-center rites of passager, marbled with comic moments, confirm writer-director David Mackenzie (“Young Adam”) as one of Blighty’s most distinctive talents, with a real feel for emotional intimacy and a cinematic way of presenting it. Though pic is unlikely to be a mass audience-pleaser, “Hallam” looks capable of tweaking plenty of upscale pockets in the hands of savvy distribs and with critical support. Film perked up the final days of this year’s Berlinale.
Bell plays Hallam Foe, 17-year-old son of apparently wealthy Scottish Highlands businessman Julius Foe (Ciaran Hinds). Hallam has retreated into a semi-fantasy world following the death of his beloved mom. Still convinced she was murdered by his stepmother Verity (Claire Forlani), rather than having drowned by accident in the nearby loch, Hallam amuses himself by spying on people and living like a pesky monkey in a treetop cabin that doubles as a shrine to mom.
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Tone of intimacy and playfulness is immediately set by a sequence in which, half-naked and wearing a badger skin, he abseils down on a couple enjoying a roll in the forest. But when his sister (Lucy Holt) leaves for Australia, Hallam feels isolated, and a chance exchange of bodily fluids with his stepmother turns into Verity’s big kiss-off to her troublesome stepson.
With Hallam’s background succinctly sketched, pic follows him as he hops a train to Edinburgh in search of a new life, but the sight of a striking young woman in the street turns him in another direction. Following her to her workplace, he finds she’s the personnel manager of a large hotel and manages to charm his way into giving him a menial job in the kitchen.
But the real reason Hallam followed her was because Kate (Sophia Myles, from “Tristan & Isolde”) is a dead ringer for his mom in her youth. That’s the start of a funny, quirky, romantic and lightly dramatic love story in which Hallam, spying on her apartment from his new nest in a clocktower, becomes entranced by the businesslike and forthright Kate.
However, when Kate’s married lover (Jamie Sives) finds Hallam is playing Peeping Tom, and an 18th-birthday drink leads to Kate taking Hallam back to her apartment, the latter finds himself on an emotional roller coaster beyond his or Kate’s control.
Straight sex as a spiritual placebo was one of the driving forces behind the main character in “Young Adam.” Mackenzie proves again he’s an ace handler of such material, but the sex in “Hallam Foe” has none of the dark joylessness of the earlier pic. Chemistry between Bell and Myles is especially good, with the former radiating a mixture of angelic charm and manipulation, and the latter sending out subtle signals that Kate, underneath her business suit, simply needs regular servicing.
Tightly honed script, from the novel by Peter Jinks, is backed by equally tight editing. Film loses some momentum (and becomes a tad overexplanatory) with Hallam’s return to the Highlands, but a beautifully played coda ends the pic on a moving and satisfying note.
Perfs are all on the money, from Hinds’ essentially weak paterfamilias to Forlani’s coolly upper-class stepmom and Sives’ thuggish lover. Scottish accents are light throughout, apart from Ewen Bremner’s inpenetrable turn as a jokey bell captain.
Widescreen lensing by Mackenzie regular Giles Nuttgens is equally textured and well-composed, and a bouncy pop-rock score keeps things largely on the lighter side. Lively graphics for both main and end titles also add bounce.