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Classic film review: 'Local Hero' is a gently amusing masterpiece

Local Hero movie poster
Local Hero movie posterWarner Bros. Pictures

Local Hero

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When a business representative from Houston, Texas is sent to a small Scotland town to convince the local population to sell their land to make way for an oil refinery, it is crucial for this representative to not get caught up in the pleasant simplicity of the blue-collar life by the sea and under the majestic sky. This is the premise of the 1983 comedy film, "Local Hero," directed by the Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth. The business representative is Mac, played with gentle grace by Peter Reigert (of "Animal House" fame) who is sent by his company, Knox Oil and Gas, to the fictional town of Ferness. Knox Oil is headed by an eccentric CEO, Felix Happer, in a late and great role by Burt Lancaster, who is seeing a therapist to rebuild his ego and is also fascinated by the night sky, looking for a comet that may be seen around Virgo (he tells Mac to look for it on his business trip). In a way, he seems unfit to run a company; in an early scene we see Happer snoring during a briefing meeting.

The town of Ferness is a quiet town by the sea where the owner of the only hotel is also the town's accountant, Gordon (Denis Lawson). When Mac arrives with a local representative, Danny (played with subtle goofiness by Peter Capaldi), he witnesses the eccentricities of the small town, the linguistic qualities of the Scottish language, and the lumbering flow of time as steady as the tides. Bill Forsyth's whole film is shot with gentleness and sympathy for the landscape of the Scottish land and the people that inhabit it. Yet, what makes it unconventional is its consistent tone of serenity but its restraint on generalizations or saturation of sentimentality. In other words, "Local Hero" aims to showcase a large spectrum of characters at the speed of life.

As you might expect, the comedy is as gentle as the rest of the film and much of the hilarity develops organically and almost in passing rather than in a staged or dramatic manner. It is as if the film, though a comedy, was not made for jokes but Forsyth's vision of life. His worldview is one that is filled with things that are inexplicable and the only thing we could do is laugh; there are certainly moments in this film where surprises are sure to make your eyes widen but they are presented in the same way Forsyth presents normal dialogue and even establishing shots.

There are two huge themes that play out in this film and why "Local Hero" could even be classified as a tragicomedy let alone a comedy. One theme includes deconstructing perceptions of the age-old cliche of simple life/simple people versus modern life/modern people. The folks of Ferness, upon hearing the reasons as to why Mac is visiting, instantly latch on to the idea of becoming millionaires if they sell their property, Gordon makes sure that any deal made will greatly benefit him and his people (something tells me Knox Oil did not anticipate such an intelligent accountant). Mac is told that these people live rough lives, so Forsyth makes it clear that most of these people want to get away from this life. On the other side of this dichotomy, you have Mac who lives the fast, business life in Houston and slowly falls for this place and its simplicity, no matter if there is not much financial benefits. One important sequence in the film has Mac collecting shells and walking barefoot on the softly swaying grass. The camera frames Mac as he gazes on an idyllic presentation of Ferness, a sweet scene of restrained romanticism.

This leads into the second theme: the consequence of romanticizing a fleeting moment. Mac romanticizes about the simplicity of Ferness in the same way the people of Ferness romanticize being rich and worry-free of any laborious tasks. Without getting into too much detail, such thoughts are as fleeting as a business trip and the aloof authority of Lancaster's Happer seems to steal the spotlight from Mac, as Mac closes the deal, for extraordinary reasons. Within the serene subtlety, Forsyth packs in life, the universe, and everything in between, all with some extra room for the inexplicable. This is all amplified by Mark Knopfler's soundtrack that is never obtrusive. Rather, it is more of a texture of curiosity as the viewer and Mac explores a timeless land. One of the most astounding aspects of this film is the way in which Forsyth deals with a traditional story unconventionally but executes it in such a way that it never seems to protrude that unconventionality far enough to lessen any of the tender moments of the film (like, the film never feels like it is constantly telling you, "Hey, I am unconventional, bow down to my unconventional filmmaking," like a Godard film...no offense to Godard).

"Local Hero" is a small film with paramount ambitions. It is both a sullen and intelligent drama as well as an anthropological study of a working-class group of people given the opportunity to escape that category. But, more importantly, it is a film about small moments and how these small moments seem to dictate life's experiences. These small moments can be mundane, sad, happy, lonely, humorous, or just plain weird. Bill Forsyth captures them all.

"Local Hero" 1983 111 min Rated PG (that's the classic PG which also encompasses films like "Jaws" so it has language and suggestive elements but nothing anywhere near offensive)