Janus Film Review Retrospective: Local Hero (1983)

as discussed by Tom Bonard.

Cinema Review: The Plaza, Truro (24/8/19)


Director Bill Forsyth comes across as a humble, and rather unassuming man; a director who very much wants his work to speak for itself. In conversation with film critic Mark Kermode at The Plaza Cinema in Truro, Cornwall, Forsyth rather charmingly distances himself from his work, but remains gratified by the enduring appeal his films hold for the audience. By way of introduction to a showing of 1983's Local Hero – arguably his masterpiece – we learn that Forsyth is included in the 1980 edition of The Guinness Book of Records for making the world's cheapest feature film. That film was 1979's That Sinking Feeling, made for a mere £2000 with a cast made up of young actors from Glasgow's Youth Theatre, when funding for what would become Forsyth's next hit, 1981's Gregory's Girl, fell through. We hear stories of Forsyth being championed by renowned UK film producer David Puttnam, offering to finance his next film on the proviso that he cast two Americans in it. (Puttnam's recent BAFTA for Chariots of Fire probably didn't hurt funding, either). In what Forsyth describes as a "no-brainer", he cast Hollywood stalwart Burt Lancaster who had stated in an interview that he wished he had "done more comedy". With a script like Local Hero, Lancaster couldn't lose.


The film itself, 36 years after its initial release, still pulls you in with its distinctive and gentle charm. American oil company representative, "Mac" MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), is sent to the fictional Scottish town of Ferness to purchase the land and buy out its inhabitants for the purposes of an oil refinery – it's a story that's as offbeat as it gets. Riegert is a likeable travelling companion and it is a fine, assured performance, with Mac beginning as an ambitious go-getter wanting to get the job done, only to then fall in love with the unique character of the town, its people and its slower and simpler pace of life.


Along the way, Mac is introduced to a variety of quirky characters, from Denis Lawson's George Urquhart, the local hotel owner and accountant ("we tend to double up on jobs 'round here") to an old-timer perennially renaming his boat ("Are you sure there are two 'Ls' in 'dollar'?" he is asked as he paints the name on the side. "'Aye," he replies. "And there are two 'Gs' in 'bugger off'). His first encounter, though, is with a young employee of the company, the amusingly ungainly Danny Oldsen, naively finding his way into the world of business whilst also navigating the mysteries of love; awkwardly wooing the girl with the webbed toes, marine researcher Marina (an enigmatic Jenny Seagrove). Oldsen is played with gauche charm by Peter Capaldi, in his first notable screen performance. Forsyth describes Capaldi as "not really an actor at this point", as he was plucked from relative obscurity as the lead singer and guitarist of local Scottish band The Dreamboys. In many ways, although very much an ensemble piece, some of the funniest and strongest moments in Local Hero are due to the good-natured camaraderie between Capaldi and Riegert.


The eccentric characters extend to Mac's boss, Mr. Happer (the aforementioned Burt Lancaster), who seems more preoccupied with the skies than with the goings-on in his company, instructing Mac to immediately let him know if there is any unusual movement in the constellations. As Mac goes about his business – with brief interludes of amateur astronomy – there is much fun to be had as the townsfolk get wind that they might be in the money ("I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight?" one of them jokes during the town ceilidh). The spanner in the works of the plan comes in the form of Ben Knox (the brilliant Fulton McKay), a delightful old man who lives on and owns the section of beach where it is proposed the refinery will be. For Ben, life is, quite literally, a beach and he will not give it up easily. Whether or not Forsyth intended the film to be a commentary on the commercialism and greed of the 1980s is unclear. However, perhaps it is telling that once Happer (the CEO of an American oil company) and Knox (a humble Scottish beachcomber) meet, they find in each other kindred spirits. "I could fall in love with this place," Happer declares. Ferness weaves its hypnotic spell once again.


Mark Knopfler's introspective and ethereal soundtrack remains inextricably linked to the film. Forsyth reveals how Knopfler's manager had contacted every film producer in the business, informing them that Knopfler was keen to write film soundtracks. And so, the Dire Straits axe-man was brought on board for Local Hero and, according to Forsyth, was instrumental (pun intended) throughout, often on set and writing material during the period of principal photography, an uncommon practice for a film composer at the time. This method clearly worked, however, as the music is imbued with the wistful character of the film, and still resonates with audiences to this day – not to mention Knopfler picking up a BAFTA award nomination for his trouble.


An oil refinery in a Scottish town; a marine biologist named "Marina"; Burt Lancaster star-gazing; a man willing to sell a beach for the financial equivalent of a handful of sand. (And I haven't even mentioned Victor, the Russian fishing boat captain who turns up to offer Mac some unexpected words of wisdom). The magic of Local Hero is that all these seemingly incongruous elements are mixed together in a pleasingly idiosyncratic cocktail from the creative mind of a modest and thoughtful filmmaker. It is a film in which the characters are the story and, in a way, the plot is secondary. Whether or not the inhabitants get their millions or the oil refinery is built doesn't really matter. What does matter is that you enjoy spending time with the people of Ferness and, like Mac, you are drawn into their lives. As Mac returns home, there is a tacit acknowledgement that he longs for something that his city penthouse apartment in the midst of Houston, Texas cannot give. We are left to ponder what that is. Local Hero stays with you; it lingers like a fond memory. For me, it remains Bill Forsyth's purest work and, much like the fictional town of Ferness, it is worth revisiting. Many times over.

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