Local Hero

Local Hero

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

After the breakout success of Gregory’s Girl, it was inevitable that writer/director Bill Forsyth would be offered the chance to try bigger things. But, as many a quirky indie auteur exposed to the Hollywood jungle too soon will tell you, bigger doesn’t always mean better. Happily, he found the ideal partner in Oscar-winning producer David Puttnam, who had formed a fruitful relationship with the finance company Goldcrest Films. Marrying the production values of the major Hollywood studios with an old-fashioned commitment to solid cinematic storytelling and a quirkily English choice of subject matter, the success of Chariots Of Fire at the 1981 Academy Awards (which led its screenwriter, Colin Welland, to declare: “The British are coming!”) had established the team as a major industry player.

There was plenty of scope for them to come a cropper, or for Forsyth to be overwhelmed by the demands of a big-budget production (which had landed one of the biggest Hollywood stars for the cast). But Local Hero triumphantly mixes all Forsyth’s wit and warmth in a broader directorial palette with excellence in every ancillary department, resulting in one of the biggest hits of the Eighties and a cinematic experience that’s just as rewarding 30 years on.

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The story opens in Houston, with oil executive Macintyre (Peter Riegert) getting information overload from a local DJ as he drives his Porsche into work. A brash, self-confident chancer with all the trappings of the American dream, he’s not all that happy when told his next assignment is to travel to the west coast of Scotland and buy up several miles of beach (and the fishing community that goes with it) to turn into a refinery and distribution terminal for the firm’s North Sea drillings. But that’s what lying about your Celtic ancestry will get you.

And the fact that company chairman Happer (Burt Lancaster), an astronomy buff who’s fascinated by the skies in those parts, is taking more interest in a routine deal than usual persuades ‘Mac’ that getting in, tying up the simple-minded locals in a good cheap deal and getting out again quick, will take him a few rungs up the corporate ladder in one go. But on arrival in the village of Ferness, with local link man Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), he finds the charm of the place getting under his skin. He also finds out that the locals, led by hotel owner/accountant/general factotum Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) are a canny bunch, happy to sell up but determined to get top dollar for their land. All except beachcombing eccentric Ben (Fulton Mackay), who owns a key stretch of the beach – and won’t part with it for any money...

Bottom of the film studies class for you if you haven’t realised by now that Local Hero is essentially an Ealing comedy updated for the Opec era; equal parts Whisky Galore and Passport To Pimlico in its celebration of eccentric but worldly characters putting one over on the faceless giants of the world. But Forsyth isn’t simply pastiching the ghosts of the past; he casts a keen eye on Eighties consumerism, the tourist board stereotypes of Scotland and the whole phenomenon of culture clash, arriving at the conclusion that there’s more uniting than dividing us – a timely message at the height of the Cold War. He also plays out a brace of beautifully observed love stories , as Mac falls for Gordon’s wife (Jennifer Black) but finds himself growing to like (and envy) the big financial fish in the small Scottish pond, while Oldsen ardently pursues Marina (Jenny Seagrove), the company marine biologist who believes the site’s earmarked as a wildlife research centre. It all builds to a satisfyingly bittersweet climax as Happer arrives to take charge personally and all the stars, literally, align.

Visually, the film’s a great leap forward from the somewhat rudimentary camerawork of Forsyth’s early films, as Chris Menges (for my money one of the all-time great cinematographers) makes the sea and skyscapes of Scotland’s west coast look as sumptuous as they’ve ever looked. Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack occasionally sounds a bit dated but hits the right note more often than not. And the performers rise to the occasion magnificently. Lancaster shows exactly why he stayed at the top for so long, combining an easy charm and flair for comedy (especially in the scenes with his increasingly extreme insult-therapy psychiatrist) with a hint of steel and ice at just the right moments. Riegert and Lawson play off against each other wonderfully and Mackay is calm and wisdom personified at the heart of the film.

In retrospect, Local Hero can be seen as a high point for all concerned. It enabled Goldcrest and Puttnam to go on to even bigger things (The Killing Fields and The Mission, most notably) before expensive flops like Revolution and Absolute Beginners prompted the former’s decline and the latter had a troubled stint as head of Columbia Pictures. Forsyth (after the under-rated Comfort And Joy) took on more wholly American subject matter with Housekeeping and Breaking In, but sharing writing duties meant the films had less of a personal stamp. The ambitious Being Human was delayed and tinkered with so much that the experience led him to disown the film and withdraw from the business, returning only once for Gregory’s Two Girls, a patchy and disappointing sequel to a film so near-perfect it didn’t need one.

But it would always be hard to top such a glittering early CV and I remain hopeful and quietly confident that Forsyth (an acute and humane observer of life whom Lancaster described as “a thousand years old”) still has a gem or two up his sleeve. Meanwhile, take another look at a film that’s far more than a historic artefact from a time when even executives had to use phone boxes, the bloke out of Dire Straits was cool and Peter Capaldi looked fresh-faced. If nothing else, it should be required viewing for every Tinseltown tyro who decides what the world needs now is yet another fish out of water comedy. Because, quite simply, this is how it should be done.

Reviewed on: 13 May 2013
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An American company attempts to buy up a Scottish village for pennies so it can site an oil refinery there, but the locals have other ideas.
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Director: Bill Forsyth

Writer: Bill Forsyth

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Fulton Mackay, Denis Lawson, Norman Chancer, Peter Capaldi, Rikki Fulton, Alex Norton, Jenny Seagrove, Jennifer Black

Year: 1983

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

Festivals:

Dunoon 2013

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