Many films have memorable characters, but few have memorable characters that live and breathe humanity. Even fewer films seem to have a life of their own that reflects the heart of its characters. One of these will-o-the-wisp films is Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, a simple, beautiful retelling of the age old story of a stranger in a strange place.
In Houston, Texas, Knox Oil complete plans for an oil refinery in Scotland, for which an entire town needs to be bought up and demolished. They decide to send one of their best negotiators, “Mac” McIntyre (Peter Riegert) based on his Scottish-sounding surname (despite being of Hungarian origins). Given a secondary task of locating a comet by his astronomy enthusiast boss, Mr Happer (Burt Lancaster), Mac travels from the impersonal world of Houston, where people in the same office communicate by phone, to the interpersonal world of Ferness, where the pub and church are the centres of news and a single phone box is the only link to the outside world. Overtime, Mac starts to fall in love with the town he’s trying to buy up… and, unknowingly, the inhabitants are eager to get rid of!
The cast of characters is fantastic, including a woman with webbed toes who spends more time in water than on land, a psychologist who’s method involves berating and abusing his victims (I mean clients) and a capitalist sailor from communist Russia, to name a few. All the characters are played with pitch-perfect performances by the highly talented cast, particularly in the cases of Dennis Lawson (known to some as Wedge from the first Star Wars trilogy) as Gordon Urquhart the innkeeper/accountant and Burt Lancaster as the daydreaming Mr Happer. But the show is stolen by Peter Riegert, whose depiction of Mac is completely natural and beautifully understated.
Few know of Local Hero’s existence, but it’s fair to say a significant amount of those who do are fans of British rock band Dire Straits. Frontman Mark Knopfler, who’s delicate but intricate guitar style affirms his status as “The Last Guitar Hero”, composes produces and performs the music (Alan Clark, the DS keyboard player features as the pianist in the céilí scene and the entire band was involved in recording the soundtrack). The main theme has gone down as a fan favourite, and with good reason. The Celtic-influenced theme is, like the movie, simple and beautiful, and definitely counts as one of Dire Straits’ best.
But all this craftsmanship could not have gelled so well without the guidance of writer-director Bill Forsyth. A director with a flair for classical style, he uses long takes to allow his characters reveal themselves to the camera in a way few directors have accomplished, and effectively uses long shots and silhouettes without drawing attention to them. He doesn’t set out to write catchphrases that will enter the public psyche, but rather to catch the rhythm and random-but-graceful movement of everyday conversation. The conversations meander, but they never leave us uninterested. One beautiful conversation stays in my mind in particular, a bit over halfway through the movie, where Urquhart and Mac get drunk on a bottle of whisky, and rather than having the drunken brawl that any other writer would put in his film, Forsyth let’s Mac open himself out to Gordon and to us in a touching monologue captured in a single take.
In the face of Local Hero, I feel like Mac looking at the northern lights, “It’s amazing. I wish you could see it! I wish I could describe it to you like I’m seeing it!” Local Hero is a unique gem of a movie, and though the ending is cloaked in poignancy and ambiguity, we can’t help but be left with a sense of joy as Mark Knopfler’s music fills our ears and Bill Forsyth’s wonderful film fills our hearts.
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[I have decided not to show this movie’s trailer due to spoiler content]