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Local Hero (1983)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 2000

It would seem, a gross simplification, that Americans regard the "old-country" in a fond, undiscerning light. Generations may have passed since their forefathers reached the New World but an unfocused longing remains, or at least that's how Local Hero sees it. In the oil-capital of Houston, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) guides his globe-spanning organisation with an eccentric touch. He's delighted at their North Sea development plan, crucial to which is the siting of an enormous oil refinery in place of the fishing village of Ferness. To smooth negotiations, Mac MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) gets lobbed across the Atlantic, all on the strength of his supposed Scottish connection.

Arriving in the United Kingdom on his hush-hush mission, Mac teams up with his local contact Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi). Together they intend to wave the wand of big money over Ferness' deeply rooted inhabitants, since they'll no doubt be reluctant to relocate. Fortunately there's an ally, the hotel-keeping lawyer Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson). He's the perfect intermediary, ready to strike a deal with Mac and generally trusted by an in-situ population. He might even talk Ben Knox (Fulton Mackay) around, convincing him to swap a beach shack for a chateau. Thus the harsh beauty of Scotland is left free to work its magic on Mac, a process encouraged by director Bill Forsyth.

Local Hero draws its vigour from this rugged landscape, creating a timeless, resilient atmosphere. Unlike gimmicky, dysfunctional Houston, the community of Ferness has weathered hard centuries, spreading roots wide enough to resist winter storms. It's in this culture conflict that Forsyth finds his humour, treading a line between obscure comedy and a rehash of everything we've seen before. There are moments where Local Hero grates -- Mac is such a telephone junkie that we have to witness him calling someone in the next office, twice -- but mostly Forsyth strikes a pleasing note. The characters that he describes are quirky and individual in their kidding, a refreshing alternative to the often blunt Hollywood approach.

A factor equally important to the film's seduction is its strong, dependable cast. Lancaster is simply wonderful as a weird billionaire, so skewed that he employs an analyst to insult him. His influence permeates Local Hero, adding an air of unpredictability. At ground zero, both Riegert and Lawson prove reasonably charming, though you never really get to know them in depth. Actually this is symbolic of a general weakness; while none of the villagers ring false in their roles, they don't amount to much either. Forsyth is pedalling a pretty idealised view of Ferness, this remote fishing community, and the written roles slot easily into such a simplistic picture. Occasionally the film side-steps such laxity, but far too rarely for my liking.

Still, the impressive scenery cradling Ferness gets a decent innings from the cinematographer Chris Menges. He may be spoilt for choice, needing only to turn on the camera to capture a stunning vista, but Menges earns his wage with fine sunsets and starry nights. This is crucial to Mac's transformation, from buttoned-up suit to beach-roaming philosopher, and the landscape does its part to make the change seem honest. Alongside, or overhead, Mark Knopfler's guitar score glides and soars, insinuating rather than intrusive. It's a delightful addition to Local Hero, in keeping with the relaxed atmosphere without resorting to typically Scottish reels.

An unfortunate side effect of Forsyth's direction is that the movie doesn't really go anywhere interesting. It's a pleasant, if undemanding, diversion but, taken as a whole, Local Hero fails to gel. For all of its supposed truth, the story ignores the hardships of Ferness life, presenting only the side of jolly happiness. More developed characters might have pulled off the subtle complexity required to make such a blinkered view work but here we've got stock roles, with nothing to set them apart. The idea of a sophisticated Yank coming to backward Scotland and getting the wool pulled over his eyes is more than decent, but it's not enough in itself to sustain a feature film. That's why Local Hero has such a low-impact despite its strengths.

This film was nominated for review by Anita Thastrom.

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