Following the success of his low-budget films That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl, Scottish film maker Bill Forsyth had the adjective “quirky” hung on him by critics, and it stuck. But there’s a nicer way to describe this talented writer-director’s output: Sweet, original and offbeat. For me, no film in Forsyth’s career better illustrates those qualities than 1983’s Local Hero.
On its face, the plot is simple. Knox Petroleum needs to buy an entire Scottish seaside town in order to further its oil empire, so its all powerful and extremely eccentric President Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) dispatches a guy named MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) to close the sale, because, well, he’s Scottish so he understands these people. In a more clichéd film, the quietly noble and down-to-earth townspeople would resist the heartless tyrants of capitalism. I will not spoil the film for you but rest assured that Forsyth is far too creative to follow that tired line of plot, either for MacIntyre and Happer or for the people of the village.
Under Forsyth’s direction, the cast sparkles throughout. Burt Lancaster, like Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood, was wise enough in late life to transition from swashbuckling roles to more age-appropriate fare. His turn as an isolated, slightly daft, stargazing corporate titan is hilarious, particularly his scenes with one of the most abusive psychotherapists in film history.
Peter Riegert is very good at playing people who are present in some respects but completely absent in others. Outwardly, his MacIntyre is a financially successful oil acquisitions man. On the inside, he is a lonely person with a bitter break-up behind him and, the film hints, more romantic disappointments to come. His last name is Scottish but even that isn’t real; he no more belongs in Scotland than he does anywhere else. What pulls on his emotions the most about the Scottish town is the wildly satisfying (in every respect) marriage of his hosts at the local B&B. It’s the life he longs for but simply doesn’t know how to create.
The charming Jenny Seagrove, whose success in UK film and television unfortunately never translated across the pond, hits the right notes as a scientist with whom Peter Capaldi’s character falls in love (Capaldi, later so good as a thoroughgoing bastard on The Thick of It and In the Loop, is completely different here in the film that first brought him notice). Kudos also to the set designers for Felix Happer’s bizarre and palatial office suite, and to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame for an understated and memorable score.
Like most of Forsyth’s films, there are a few big laughs and many more small ones. Wistful in some ways, joyful in others, this quiet gem of a movie will bring a smile to your face.