Conleth Hill and Stephen Graham star in this atmospheric thriller directed by Michael Lennox, which recently debuted at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
One of the most difficult things about festival viewings is that in today’s society of social media and the ease of throwing out an opinion on everything, you’re sometimes among the first people to actually see a film. With little to no prior thoughts on the film out there you have to choose your interest carefully. I bring this up because it was the central cast that brought A Patch Of Fog, the feature debut of Michael Lennox, to my attention. With Conleth Hill (Varys on Game Of Thrones) and Stephen Graham (Capone on Boardwalk Empire and more importantly, Combo from This Is England), the film plays into this modern day obsessive thriller. The result is a very successful piece, but one that falters a bit when trying to decide how far into the fog it wants to go.
[Some plot details ahead.] A Patch Of Fog refers to a book written by the main character, Sandy Duffy (Conleth Hill). The book has now reached its 25th anniversary, and Duffy has been riding the tails of its success ever since through television appearances, lecturing at the university and an upcoming interview with presenter Lucy (Lara Pulver), whom Sandy is currently sleeping with. He’s also lost in himself; he’s been unable to write a second book for the last 25 years and has grown bored with the constant praise of his work. In an effort to ease his boredom, Sandy has taken to minor cases of shoplifting, enjoying the thrill of being able to steal so easily, and as a result has turned into a mild kleptomaniac.
His luck runs out when he’s caught on camera by Robert (Stephen Graham), a security guard and lonely man. Robert lets Sandy off with the shoplifting in exchange for a drink at the pub. Sandy accepts, hoping to be done with Robert as soon as they’re finished. Robert, though, has other plans, and blackmails Sandy by holding onto the evidence of his shoplifting. And in exchange, he wants… a friend. He wants to continue meeting Sandy and being his friend and for that he will hold onto the footage of Sandy’s shoplifting.
What follows is a solid character thriller which pits two very flawed men against each other and lets the psychological battle take over. There’s plenty of twists and turns to satisfy any genre fan and the way in which the relationship between Sandy and Robert bounces around makes it brilliantly difficult to know what’ll come next. Where the story falls down, however, is in the details, Sandy may be a shoplifter, but it’s always just small items, pens and paperweights, it never feels like that much of an issue to be looming over his head unless he simply didn’t want people looking into his private life as a third act reveal suggests. The whole ending in fact feels a little too easy; there feels like there should’ve been more of an impact, instead going for a morality tale ending that doesn’t fit the way the film has built the characters.
Suitably for this type of film the characters are kept focused, with Sandy and Robert taking up nearly the full film with only Lara Pulver’s Lucy – a Television presenter who gets trapped in this web by proxy – and fellow Thrones alum Ian McElhinney as Sandy’s friend /agent Frank filling the world out a little more.
The focus works both for and against the film; on the one hand it allows the story to keep centered on these two and their relationship, but on the other hand it also lets some of the flaws to stand out more clearly due to how long we spend with the characters. As Sandy, Conleth Hill is given the chance to play a real asshole of a character – he’s a bored kleptomaniac riding out the success of a single novel and has been milking it ever since. His meeting and eventual relationship with Robert forces Sandy to face an ugly truth: that he can’t hide himself forever. There’s many layers to Sandy’s character and Hill peels them back one by one through the course of the film, allowing the audience to see Sandy as a friend, a hack, a thief, a lover – all before showing his true colours by the end. There’s very little to like about Sandy, but the humanising elements that Hill allows the audience to see paint a flawed picture rather than an inherently bad one, and the tales of his past, told through hints by way of his novel, showcase something that has built up over time and has been waiting on someone like Robert to let it loose.
Robert, played by Stephen Graham, is something of a mix. He’s a well-acted character with Graham hitting every beat he has to with some surprisingly morose elements being the highlights, but he definitely could be better written. He can jump from psychotically obsessive to sympathetically lonely and it makes him a difficult character to get a bead on. Granted, this could’ve been intentional, to make Robert this hard-to-determine character which keeps his true intentions in the dark, but the sheer opposition of both sides of his character make it near impossible to tell who he is. Is he a Manson Family wannabe with a sick fascination for Sandy, or he is just a sad, lonely man who has found a way to make a friend and fooled himself into believing that he’s doing the right thing, that he’s helping Sandy by holding onto the shoplifting footage? For the most part, the film wants the latter – which is perfect because this is where Graham excels; but it’s the scenes where he acts the creepy stalker which harms an otherwise interesting character.
For a first time director, Lennox does have a good handle on how to tell a thrilling story. The surprises that develop between Robert and Sandy provide quite a distinctive taste, with Sandy’s desperation to free himself being matched by Robert’s odd little quirks that keeps the film on its tail. The shoplifting might not be the strongest element to start off the film, but Lennox does the best he can with that as the backbone and takes us deeper into this psychological battleground. One of the best parts comes from Sandy making a move to get one up on Robert, only to discover that Robert has an ace up his sleeve, adding another layer to this tremulous relationship.
The film also looks the part, with the whole thing taking place nearly all at night, a slight mist lingering to match the titular fog – maybe not as thick as the film would like, but still an effective way of showing the building animosity between both parties. It’s thriller 101 but that’s why it works; the familiar elements of dark, foggy nights are balanced by the confusion over where the relationship with Sandy and Robert will go next, and all that’s for sure is that it’s going to get darker.
A Patch Of Fog might have some flaws in it when put under scrutiny, but most things do. Even though it falls in places, the end result is still a very effective thriller that places two great actors in the forms of Hill and Graham and lets them loose in a rare form of character thriller. For all its faults this still a great little piece.