Edinburgh has hardly been neglected by writers and filmmakers. But a new film is the first to put sex into the cityby Mark Cousins / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The city in which I live, Edinburgh, hasn’t exactly been neglected by writers and filmmakers. Stroll its streets and you can see how it inspired the gothic dualism of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Go to a pub in its port, Leith, and you find yourself drinking beside characters from Trainspotting. It’s the “fur coat, nae knickers” town; it’s “auld reekie” because its 19th-century smoke made the place stink; it’s the Athens of the north; the place of innumerable literary flytings; the city where Jean Brodie told her girrrls that they were in their prrrrime; it’s the place where Ian Rankin’s Rebus threads through his labyrinth of booze.
Despite such over-determination, the capital of Scotland has never really been eroticised. Until now, that is. David Mackenzie’s new film Hallam Foe, from a book by Peter Jinks, turns Edinburgh into a Hitchcockian world of lustful observation. Just as in Vertigo, James Stewart meets a woman who resembles his apparently dead lover, and tries to turn the former into the latter, to increase, or return to, his erotic charge; so in Hallam Foe, Jamie Bell meets a woman who resembles his dead mother, spies on her having sex and, unable to help himself, partakes in scenarios in which the woman and his memories of his mother merge.
This sounds deadeningly Oedipal, but Mackenzie’s are the most erotic British films of our time. Whereas in France, directors who are interested in sexuality are a dime a dozen, in Britain they are almost unique. Mackenzie’s previous films (Asylum, Young Adam) have all been structured around sex scenes. In The Last Great Wilderness, there’s a great line where the lead character confesses that he washed his “nob” because he was meeting a girl. Hallam Foe is Mackenzie’s best movie yet, because it marries eros with the wholly cinematic situation found in Jinks’s book. Hallam moves to Edinburgh, has nowhere to live and so, like a birdman, ends up kipping in rooftop spaces and spending much of the film obsessively watching his female boss, like Jimmy Stewart in another Hitchcock film, Rear Window.
Though what Hallam sees is often sexual, his response is not masturbatory because he’s watching out of grief as much as eros. He sees a grown woman he fancies but also the mother he has lost. Jamie Bell’s posh-sad-cocky Hallam is remarkably articulate—which teenagers hardly ever are on screen—so the dialogue is like one of Hollywood’s sparkling comedies written by Anita Loos. Add to this the novelty of seeing Edinburgh—the brainy city, the dour city, the festival city, the druggy city—as a Freudian and erotic place, and you get a film that is remarkably engaging.