It is more than mildly appropriate that we begin this film in a tree house. Our hero, you see, is little more than a fledgling (opening credits suggest a trouble-making fledgling) who prefers the camouflaged seclusion of the treetops to the red earth and the hum of man. These heights also grant him a pesky hobby, namely spying on everything and everyone around him with his fantastic binoculars. Despite this ostensibly scientific leaning, our bird is subject to the flights of fancy of the most delusional of poets, which makes what he sees as problematic as his methods of observation.
The avian adolescent in question is Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell). Hallam is the kind of shy, slovenly, and generally innocuous seventeen-year-old who is so frustrated with the shape of his existence that what normally plagues boys his age – the pursuit and conquest of the opposite sex – seems like an endnote to a lengthy tome of troubles. Unlike most voyeurs, however, he does not display much envy or erotic interest in what he sees. When he confesses this oddity later in the film, the careful viewer will not only believe him, he will also not see any other interpretation possible. Teenage boys may indeed turn to peeping and vicarious pleasures to avoid the potential humiliation of the whole hunt, but for all his guerilla tactics Hallam is no hunter. That is to say, he cannot know what he is missing if he has absolutely no notion of what he is supposed to have. Hallam stares at the world and its gyrations like some of us stare at the firmament – in anticipation of a sign, any sign. Perhaps Bell's pouty restraint and charm render him credible as both a stalker and an innocent bystander; but the tenor in his repeated peeping sessions is correct, if charged with eroticism for everyone except him. He does watch women in various stages of dishabille, as well as a coupling or two, and yet remains more fascinated with the energy and purpose than beset by some juvenile itch. It is important, therefore, to understand the film on its own untwisted terms: a well-heeled Scottish lad who has recently lost his mother devotes a large portion of his free hours to the observation of happier people with causes and concerns.
Actually, maybe not quite that happy. But there are causes and concerns galore. His mother drowned two years ago in a loch beside Chanby house, a wonderfully Scottish manor currently inhabited by Hallam, his older sister Lucy (Lucy Holt), their architect father Julius (Ciarán Hinds), and their father's dishy second wife Verity (Claire Forlani). In the breathtaking first twenty minutes, Hallam will foil one of Lucy's sexcapades in the woods, examine a jolly boat with a hammer, break into the local police station, call his stepmother a gold-digging prostitute, gaze at a wall-sized photograph of his mother in his tree house, accuse his stepmother of murder to his father, find his sister waxing his stepmother's legs, then, in an inevitability as subtle as an avalanche, have unbridled sexual intercourse in that same tree house with that same stepmother under that same wall-sized photograph. Most reviews of the film, of course, smugly mention complexes and other psychobabble that can be culled from the back covers of a teetering stack of woeful slabs – but I think readers of these pages know that this type of nonsense is best reserved for limited and unimaginative minds. Hallam's main personality trait is the pain of having a parent leave his life without his knowing much about her and, more importantly, without her having seen him fulfill his potential as a human being. He does not quite know how she died; the police report indicates (in perfect concordance with Julius's statements) that Anne Sarah Foe had 900 ml of prescription-level soporifics in her system when she drowned. It seems absurd to him that a married, well-off, and lovely mother of two would abandon our world without the slightest cry for help. Yet, sadly enough, we former teenagers know much more about life and its machinations, and know which suppositions at the beginning of the film are improbable and which are more than a bit likely. That Verity – truth itself – would avail herself of his diaries then seduce him to use both events as a means of blackmailing him out of the house is highly probable. What is not really probable is what Hallam finds in Edinburgh as a humble but enthusiastic dishwasher – but we shall conclude our revelations right there.
The originality in Mister Foe is in its insistence to see what Hallam sees at almost all times, without ever insinuating that his illness – if that is really the right word – has clouded his judgment amidst dangerous heights. Thus, apart from a few, sporadic moments we never leave Hallam's world. Doors are always conveniently ajar; windows, trees, and roofs mere seats in other people's theaters. Even when some very racy events occur on the other side of the pane, so to speak, this remains a premise to which the viewer readily assents because Hallam is much more victim than creep (pace one character's later comment). If this were a Spanish or Italian production, our lonesome bird would have surely long devolved into a homicidal maniac. Since we wander about the overly civilized moors of Scotland where refined masters such as MacBeth and Hogg once prowled, however, we know that the plot may get bloody, but it will inevitably remain understated and subtle. We get visceral close-ups of what Hallam will remember of this troubling period: a lovely young woman's batting lid when she makes an unpleasant admission, and then his lid in response, and then hers again; an ATM screen boldly prophesying "Today you may withdraw nil"; the only book title ever legible during the film, "Easy Lock Pickings"; and a supply of dirty dishes so unending that we can almost taste the grease. There are also a couple of revelations about Anne Foe, whose only known profession apart from mother is artist. What sort of artist? Her maiden name, we learn, was Munro, which recurs to a minor figure of English literature and, given the plot of Mister Foe, one brief work in particular. And who would that girl by the open window be? We have yet to mention Kate (Sophia Myles), the third in a triptych of scrumptious women, and her exact role, but some mysteries must be maintained until the curtain rises. Suffice it to say that when and how Hallam encounters her must be attributed to some force between destiny and dementia. O Hallam, thou shalt not be the fool of loss.