Life looks pretty good for Sandy Duffy. Twenty years ago he wrote smash hit novel A Patch of Fog and has been reaping the benefits ever since. The book has bought him a swanky pad in a trendy part of town, a satisfying day job as a creative writing lecturer, a weekly TV spot as a culture critic (complete with a secret relationship with the show’s host), and respect and admiration from all and sundry.
There are only a couple of flies in the ointment. His publisher is pressuring him to do a 20th-anniversary interview tour of a book Duffy is sick of hearing and talking about. Somewhere along the way he’s also developed a nasty case of kleptomania: idly wandering the aisles of department stores, slipping small cheap items into his pocket and relishing the thrill of getting away with something.
Until, of course, he doesn’t get away with it. But Robert, the security guard who nabs him, is no ordinary jobsworth. He reveals himself to be a lonely, desperate and manipulative stalker: blackmailing an increasingly paranoid and irrational Sandy into being his friend. Soon this creepy man is turning up for Robert’s lectures, accompanying him to art exhibits and ominously peering through his windows at night. We know things are going to go bad, but how bad?
Director Michael Lennox, whose 2014 short Boogaloo and Graham won him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, takes an ever-so-slightly clichéd obsession narrative and dials up the suspense and intelligence. One of his finest decision is to treat his Belfast setting with originality: quietly sidelining the Troubles and showing a city eager to shed its past. Dingy brickwork pubs, council estates and trash-strewn brownfield give way to sleek aluminum and glass modernity: the galleries, TV studios and shopping centers giving us an impression of a city consciously redefining its identity.
It’s a process we see mirrored in the author/stalker duo of Sandy (played by Game of Thrones’ star eunuch, Conleth Hill) and Robert (the reliably excellent Stephen Graham). Sandy, as indicated by his kleptomania, is not an entirely happy bunny. Sick of being known as ‘the Patch of Fog guy’ he wishes to be treated as who he is now: an acerbic media commentator and admired academic. And, as he makes that wish, the proverbial monkey’s paw curls up and Robert appears.
Robert is a fascinatingly creepy individual with a rictus psychopath grin and shark-like dead eyes (he also has totally bizarre taste in wallpaper). Isolated and lonely, he craves human companionship but is so socially inept that his most successful friendship making technique is blackmail. Despite all that, he’s not some stock character villain, the film displaying a great deal of sympathy for his state of mind while never condoning his actions. Sandy, on the other hand, is disgusted by everything about him, considering him a dim-witted, sad little man with a cruel streak. Yet, in a twist of fate he’s the only person who reveres Sandy for his real self rather than seeing him reflected through his book.
That’s just the biggest of the film’s many cruel ironies (it ends on a real humdinger), and it’s with stomach-churning thrills that we enjoy Lennox’s sadist treatment of his characters. There are a couple of darkly funny scenes that bring this to the fore, notably a wonderfully droll trip through a conceptual art exhibition and a scene where stalker and victim get stoned together and have a brief (albeit hazy) moment of genuine connection.
In the wrong hands a story about an author and his obsessed stalker would feel played out – after all, you’re unlikely to do this better than Rob Reiner’s iconic Misery. Yet Lennox, aided by two great performances from Hill and Graham, finds nuance in the old setup, which makes A Patch of Fog an above average, pleasingly cerebral thriller.
A Patch of Fog mostly overcomes a somewhat tired narrative structure through masterful tension building and a smattering of intelligent psychology.