If there is one film that fills me with more emotions that I can neither understand or bear it is Bill Forsyth’s 1983 Scottish comedy Local Hero. It is a film that makes you laugh yet has a melancholic tone that always seems one step away from breaking your heart in two. It was named #37 on the list of BFI Top 100 British Films by the British Film Institute. It’s number one on mine.
‘Mac’ Macintyre (Peter Riegert) is a typical hot-shot executive working for Knox Oil and Gas, a billion dollar company in Houston, Texas. He is sent to the fictional Scottish village of Ferness to negotiate a deal to buy the land on behalf of the companies eccentric owner Felix Happer (played by Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster). Happer also tells Mac to ‘watch the skies’ and notify him if he sees anything unusual. Mac rather bewilderedly agrees before setting off to Scotland.
Even in these early scenes, the comic yet melancholic tone is set. Happer – a man who has everything and more – is shown as a man who is unsure of himself and with a sense that he has achieved nothing. His obsession with comets and the stars only adds to the feeling that the man feels he has contributed nothing to the world and has no legacy.
Mac could well be the image of Happer as a young man. Ruthless and ambitious, Mac is also friendless and void of much character. He is driven by wealth and is a faceless exec in a vast sea of faceless execs.
When Mac’s flight arrives in Aberdeen he is met by Danny Olsen (the outstanding Peter Capaldi making his debut). During a visit to a Knox research facility based in Aberdeen, Mac and Danny learn the scope of the company’s plans, which entail replacing Ferness with the refinery, from Dr Geddes (Rikki Fulton) and his assistant Watt (Alex Norton). They also meet (and admire) marine researcher Marina (Jenny Seagrove) who escorts Mac to Ferness. On the way they get lost in the fog after injuring a rabbit (which Mac names Trudy after an unrequited love he left in Houston) and by the morning he arrives in Ferness and at the hotel run by Gordon Urquhart (the incredible Dennis Lawson) and his wife, Stella (Jennifer Black).
It turns out that Urquhart is also the accountant and starts to negotiate the deal with Mac, telling him to check out the sights and scenery of the village for a few days while Urquhart talks to the local community.
As Mac settles in to the village he becomes more and more conflicted when he should be looking to finalise the deal. In effect he swaps places with Urquhart, who becomes more hardball when the community decide that they would rather be stinking rich than live the hard lives they have lived for any longer. It is a highly surprising and ironic twist that the locals want to sell, and a credit to Forsyth for not following the usual cliché of ‘big company ruins little community’.
The section of the film that is truly awe inspiring is the dance, where generations come together and Mac gets drunk and is finally sold. In a hilarious and touching scene, Mac offers to swap lives with Urquhart – a swap that will include Stella in the deal. He tells Urquhart over a whiskey that “I’ll be a good Gordon, Gordon.”
There are so many great beats and character moments to chose from they can’t all be mentioned here. Forsyth won a BAFTA for Best Direction and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and it was much deserved. Every scene is magical, every character three dimensional and there are even little jokes that you don’t pick up on until the fourth or fifth viewing (the crazed motorcyclist that is never seen is a personal highlight). The subplot of the burgeoning romance between Danny and mermaid Marina is beautifully realised enough to fuel an entire film by itself.
Just as the negotiations are about to end and the deal is ready to be made, Urquhart discovers that Ben (played by Fulton MacKay) – an old man that lives on the beach – actually owns the beach and that the deal would also have to be finalised with him. These negotiations hit a head when a content Ben fails to give in to Mac’s offers of money or a beach anywhere in the world.
It is here that the best example of the line between light hearted comedy and potential heartbreak hits its peak. As a drunken Ben leaves the dance, he is followed to the beach by a group of villagers who ‘want a word’ with him. Urquhart and Mac follow him to the beach to ensure he gets home safely. They turn to see what could be a mob who want to ensure they become rich and will do anything to ensure the deal goes ahead – but what they are actually doing is following the light of Felix Happer’s helicopter that is approaching over the sea. It is an incredible shot, and comes as a relief for viewers who might have thought that the film’s tone is about to darken rapidly.
Happer’s arrival and subsequent self-handled negotiations with Ben end in a complete u-turn. Ben is what Happer could have been – probably inspires to be. Happer finally gets to create something of meaning when he decides to locate the refinery offshore and set up an astronomical observatory instead. He instructs Macintyre to go home to implement the changes. Danny brings up Marina’s dream of an oceanographic research facility and suggests combining the two into the “Happer Institute”, an idea that Happer likes. Later, Danny finds Marina swimming offshore and tells her the good news.
In a typical Hollywood film, Macintyre would stay in the village and marry a local woman and give up all of his material possessions and live a happy life. But Mac ends up back in his lonely existence in Houston at the films end, calling the red phone box in Ferness that he used to notify Happer when the skies worked their magic. But the phone goes unanswered. It’s a heartbreaking ending that stays with you for the rest of your life and as Mark Knopfler’s beautiful score ‘Going Home’ plays, the film fades to black.