'A Patch of Fog': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Incredible — and not in a good way.

A hotshot novelist is blackmailed into hanging out with a lonely security guard in this debut feature from Irish director Michael Lennox.

An esteemed novelist with a penchant for shoplifting is blackmailed into a dubious friendship with the security guard who caught him in the act in A Patch of Fog, the debut feature from Irish director Michael Lennox, whose short film Boogaloo and Graham was nominated for an Academy Award last year. Starring Conleth Hill as the man of letters and Stephen Graham playing against type as the sad sack just looking for a chum, this slickly made thriller is let down by its script, whose escalating implausibility is played too straight to even be enjoyably ridiculous. Hill and Graham both are best known stateside for their work on HBO (in Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, respectively) but are hardly marquee names, so distribution outside the Isles looks iffy.

A Patch of Fog is the title of the acclaimed debut novel by Sandy Duffy (Hill), published 25 years ago and still without a follow-up. Sandy’s been living off the veneration ever since. He participates in a weekly culture show on TV, whose host, Lucy (Sherlock’s Lara Pulver), he’s conducting a surreptitious relationship with, and he lectures at the local university. He’s also developed a recreational habit, worked out to a level of clinical efficiency, of shoplifting. He sets his phone to ring a few minutes before he enters a store; when it does, he fishes for his cell and pockets the pair of cuff links he’s holding, then he breezes out past the security guard. His rationale? Roughly that, you know, it makes him feel alive. But his compulsion to risk exposure betrays a sense of fraudulence connected to a long-suppressed secret with the power to ruin his life and reputation.

In the wake of The Gift and The Perfect Guy, there’s never been a more receptive time to renovate the reputation of the stalker. Next to the ones at the centers of those films, Robert (Graham) is almost endearing, if still unbalanced enough to bear the name. In one of several moments in which the hand of the screenwriters (John Cairns and Michael McCartney) feels overpresent, Robert is introduced watching Sandy trading bon mots on TV, shortly before Sandy walks into his store and Robert captures him on CCTV swiping a pen. Sandy pleads with him not to turn him in and offers him money. Robert begs off, but suggests they grab a drink instead.

Part of the reason the whole thing never quite convinces is that Robert’s leverage over Sandy never feels hefty enough. Robert says he has the footage of his light-fingeredness on a disc, so Sandy breaks into his house to steal it back. The disc is in the snake’s terrarium because Robert keeps snakes, in case we didn’t get the memo about him being a creep. But the film doesn’t really commit to him being so. His flat is wallpapered by production designer David Craig in an eye-watering design of disguise beards and mustaches, which presumably is meant to imply that there’s more to Robert than meets the eye, though the film never demonstrates it. It’s a shame the details are so unsubtle because Lennox knows how to build tension. Editor Livia Serpa ratchets up the suspense expertly in this sequence as Robert walks home, getting closer to his house as it’s being ransacked, and Sandy reaches into the snake’s cage.

Robert starts attending Sandy’s lectures and has a creepy exchange with Lucy when she strolls into his store in which his jealousy is implicit. When Sandy’s at home showing Lucy's daughter how to toss pizza dough, he gets a text from Robert — “Can’t she do anything right?” — and looks up to find Robert glaring stonily through the window. This stuff would be too on the nose for Kevin Williamson. A heartbeat later, Lucy’s car window is smashed and Sandy’s, too. In the very next scene, Sandy’s sitting in a furniture store, chastising Robert like he’s borrowed a book without asking. "I looked through your window, and it looked like the bloody Waltons," says Robert. "That’s funny," responds Sandy, "I looked through mine, and it looked like the f—ing Mansons!"

Comic but not quite credible — and psychologically shallow in the extreme — the whole film is caught between the poles of that exchange, between the benign and the real. Lennox can’t decide whether he wants to make One Hour Photo or a darkly comic caper a la Michael McDonagh. Lensed evocatively by Matthias Pilz on the streets of Belfast in inky blacks and blues, A Patch of Fog finally commits to being a romance: Sandy and Robert go down together as the band Snow Patrol sings, “Lover, can you hold my hand?” in an original song composed for the film.

Production companies: The Fyzz Facility Film Three, Northern Ireland Screen, BFI
Cast: Stephen Graham, Conleth Hill, Lara Pulver
Director: Michael Lennox
Writers: John Cairns, Michael McCartney
Producers: Robert Jones, Wayne Marc Godfrey, David Gilbery
Director of photography: Matthias Pilz
Production designer: David Craig
Costume designer: Harriet Webb-Crozier
Editor: Livia Serpa
Composer: Jered Sorkin
Casting director: Elaine Grainger
Sales: 13 Films/Paradigm


No rating, 90 minutes