Review: Local Hero


5 stars 

Local Hero is my all-time favorite film. Please note that I didn't say it was the “best movie of all time.” It is simply the movie that has brought me more happiness than any other. The 1983 comedy is a small, low-key feature. I mention this up front because when somebody with a job like mine calls a film their all-time favorite, people tend to expect something big. When they don't get that, they tend to nod off while watching it. So I repeat: it is small and low-key.

To emphasize that even more, I'll share a fact: In 2000, Vice-President Al Gore said that Local Hero was his favorite film. I didn't like having to share the movie with Gore, but telling people about his endorsement has proved to be an effective way of tempering their expectations. I suspect Gore appreciates the film in large part because the plot deals with ecological concerns. I appreciate it because it's quirky and smart and charming. Local Hero makes me homesick for a place I've never been.

Written and directed by Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Breaking In), the film opens in Houston, Texas, where Knox Oil is preparing to make their next move, acquiring a small Scottish fishing village so they can tear it down and start drilling. Knox leader Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), aware that this time the company is “not in a third world situation,” wants a relatable negotiator sent to the village.

Accordingly, Knox negotiator “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) is drafted. The tightly wound man is not happy. He prefers to do business over the phone (we see him calling his coworkers in the office rather than walking a few steps and dealing with them face to face. As for his Scottish connection, it turns out that his parents took the name when they moved to our country, believing “MacIntyre” to be an American name.

And so Mac MacIntyre travels to Scotland to purchase a picturesque fishing village for as little as possible, without letting the locals find out that the oil company plans to destroy it all. Mac meets his Scottish second-in-command along the way, a gangly, pleasantly odd fellow named Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) and together they travel to picturesque Ferness, where they will deal with local negotiator/innkeeper/unofficial mayor Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) and his beautiful wife Stella (Jennifer Black).

All of this is set up in the first few minutes, by the way, giving us plenty of time to hang around Ferness. It's a lovely place with white buildings and a single red British phone booth on the street across from the hotel. The people are poor, but make no fuss about it. Ferness is a strong community made up of folks that are quite ready to sell everything and move somewhere else. Though unaware of the details, they know the oil company is sending a negotiator and are eager for Gordon to finagle a good deal on their behalf.

Local Hero has a great cast – Burt Lancaster, a genuine old time movie star; Peter Riegert, Boone from Animal House; Peter Capaldi, the current Doctor Who; Denis Lawson, Wedge from the original three Star Wars movies – and a host of others, all in peak form. Everyone has their own story, though we only see bits and pieces. Everything in Ferness feels genuine, even the marine biologist (Jenny Seagrove) who just might be a mermaid. The Houston scenes are less successful, particular a subplot involving Happer and his lunatic therapist that seems imported from a different movie. Mark Knopfler's score is gorgeous and used perfectly throughout the film. The soundtrack for the movie actually made more money than the movie itself.

If I could, I would travel to Ferness and spend a night or a dozen chatting, sipping whiskey and listening to the Acetones play at the ceilidh at the Urquharts' hotel. I might even dance a bit. Alas, it will never be. Ferness is a fiction made by combining shots of a few buildings in Pennan, Aberdeenshire with beach scenes from the other side of the country.

But Bill Forsyth captured something distinct in Local Hero. He expertly mixes reality and whimsy, adding the sweet regret that seems to come with most Scottish art. There is a happy ending, but it doesn't work out the way you'd expect, and I reckon several of the characters would argue that it's not that happy for them. Never mind, they can always watch Local Hero and feel better for a while. It makes me feel better every time. 

Review: Local Hero (1983)

Rated: PG, 5 stars

Can be viewed or purchased on Amazon


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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