Local Hero (1983): Nothing Local About It

I just love how desultory  film exploration works: one day, you’re watching a ‘modern’ rom-com, the next you’re sticking your head into a small British thing of the 80s which turns out to be a superior version of She’s the Man (2006). And before you know it, there is another Bill Forsyth movie on your screen which turns out to be just a peach!


At first sight, Local Hero should make you worry. As the imdb synopsis puts it:

An American oil company sends a man to Scotland to buy up an entire village where they want to build a refinery. But things don’t go as expected.

The problem with this isn’t so much that we’re all so worried about the unscrupulous scenario that promises to unfold. Rather, it’s that any “things don’t go as expected” take poses a serious threat of being awkward, mushy and just plain irritating. I mean, unless it’s a story of resistance, it’s a story of conversion, and while the former is at worst dull, the latter can put a dent in your faith in humanity.

Fortunately, Forsyth pulls off a spectacular feat in framing a story which mixes elements of both aforementioned scenarios with such tranquility and understated affection that it becomes pleasurable to get taken in by it. The movie never pushes an agenda, the lead characters are not wholly absurd, while the larger community is engaged and engaging. These elements become so easily stereotyped that when it doesn’t happen, you have to wonder whether the world is still turning. Beyond a disciplined script, I always find that pacing and mood-building are key. The execution thereof is not as handy as it appears, with cinematography and sound (mixing and theme – hello, Mark Knopfler) clearing the path, but not quite ensuring success. For as much as any woman or man enjoys subtlety, it’s best to avoid being subtly bored.

Beyond these rather general observations of why Local Hero just works, what really distinguishes it is its ability to fill the canvas of small town Scotland with rituals and routines that contrast the modern world we depart from. It doesn’t hammer it in crudely, but rather takes the time to find the little things that instill said feeling, with well placed eccentricities and avoiding ridiculous moments of forced introspection. And the humor of it all, tinging across the dialogue in a situationally astute manner, is something special. Just reading through the quotes, I get an urge to share the bunch of them! Here’s only one:

Rev. Macpherson: You want to buy my church?
MacIntyre: Not as a going concern.

There are so many little things that work, commenting on how connected people can be, at a time when…well, there’s always a time like that, but the point is that Local Hero takes you out of it and makes you feel lovely all over.

Too much?

Okay then, taking a step back. There are some occasional imperfections, where things get too real or preachy for my taste. With comments like:

Townsman: I thought all this money would make me feel different.

To be fair, the scene does say more about how the expectation of having to feel differently because you are rich can depress you if you don’t feel differently, which is a fair point, applicable to a whole host of collisions between personal/social expectations. But still, it comes across as an artificial comment and seems to fit even less a few scenes later.

Perhaps the harshest criticism one can bring is aimed at the movie’s suggestion that oil companies can be the good guys. Most of the larger oil spills in recent memory came after the 1983 release of Local Hero, but the arguments around displacing a village to set up an oil refinery are more complex than it is Forsyth’s scope to explore here. Of course, the biggest ‘problem’ is casting someone as likable as Burt Lancaster in the role of the big honcho, a prickly character that gets its share of ironic flak, yet remains mostly respectable and even endearing.

Moving beyond such real life nit-picking, it is worth offering a nod to the rest of the cast as well, especially Peter Riegert, with a deadpan performance in the leading role, and Peter Capaldi, as to goofy aid, in only his second acting credit. Given the subdued nature of the movie, there aren’t many opportunities for star-making turns, yet it all fits together nicely.

Local Hero has many moments where it is film at its best. Even more so, moments where it just is, weightless to the core without becoming trivial. A proper bout of escapism that lingers, as prescribed by both commercial and artistic prophets of the medium. The only toll it requires is a tad of patience and the willingness to take part.