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EMPIRE ESSAY: Local Hero Review

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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.

★★★★★

In retrospect, Local Hero seems the perfect melding of producer David Puttnam and writer-director Bill Forsyth's sensibilities. Combining the craftsmanship, commitment to issues (the raping of the environment by big business) and the prevailing sense of optimism of Puttnam's flicks (Chariots Of Fire, The Killing Fields) with the idiosyncratic characterisation, wry observation and understated humour of Forsyth, Local Hero sees the collaboration coalesce into something near perfect.

Surprisingly, the impetus behind the Scottish set movie did not start with Forsyth. Browsing through the newspaper, Puttnam's eye was caught by a story detailing negotiations for an oil development in a Scottish community. Puttnam presented the cutting to Forsyth - the producer had previously turned down Gregory's Girl - who was immediately hooked by the idea.

"In keeping with every other Scottish filmmaker, I thought there was a story to be made about the oil business," Forsyth observed at the time. "I saw it along the lines of a Scottish Beverly Hillbillies: what would happen to a small community when it suddenly became immensely rich? There was the germ of the idea and the story built itself from there."

What Forsyth crafted from the idea is adroitly plotted, pleasingly sentimental and consistently surprising. Sent by crazed oil tycoon Felix Happer (Lancaster, gently satirising the blustering big business types that were his stock in trade) to buy a remote Scottish village so the company can drill for North sea oil, hotshot exec Maclntyre (Reigert), aided by bumbling local company rep Danny (Capaldi), enters into discussions with local lawyer-hotelier Gordon Urquhart (Lawson). Rather than rejecting the move, the village embrace the get-rich-quick scheme while Mac comes under the spell of village life, bolstered by Happer's insistence that he keep an eye out for the Aurora Borealis that supposedly lights the Scottish night skies.

Although it is oft-stated that the film belongs to the tartan whimsy of Brigadoon and Whisky Galore, a more pertinent antecedent might be Powell and Pressburger's I Know Where I Am Going which predates Hero's feel for landscape and sense of lilting Scottishness. Chris Menges' stunning cinematography finds beauty and wonder in equal measures, particularly in the moment in which a beach full of villagers follow a mysterious light in the sky only to be revealed as Rapper's helicopter. That Mac's falling in love with rural life is so easy to swallow may have much to do with the location scouting - the beach was provided by the silver sands at Camusdarach with Pennan on the North East coast doubling as the village - but the luminous cinematography is an equally beguiling factor.

Around its main plot, Local Hero skilfully interweaves a number of sub-plots: Happer's psychiatrist trying to shake him out of his complacency by abusive phone calls; Danny's infatuation with oceanologist Marina (Jenny Seagrove) who - typical of the film's magical realism - has a hint of mermaid which blossoms in the film's conclusion; the burgeoning friendship between Mac and Gordon, beautifully rendered by Reigert and Lawson, sees the two men imperceptibly swap personalities ("I'll be a good Gordon, Gordon"). Mac's business savvy is transformed by the laid back life and Gordon's easy-going nature is consumed by the dollar signs in his eyes. As both men fall in love with the same woman: Urquhart's wife (Jennifer Black) - Forsyth, as in Gregory's Girl, juxtaposes feeble daydreaming men with sensible centred women and delights as the differences become apparent.

Moreover, containing a tighter, more complex and confidently told narrative than his previous flick, Forsyth still provides breathing space for the lovely vignettes and character moments that Local Hero solidified as his trademark. There are fantastic running gags (the mad, offscreen, motorcyclist who terrorises the roads, the continual coughing up of coinage so Mac can phone Houston from the nearby telephone box), cracker jack dialogue ("Are you sure there are two Is in dollar Gideon?" a passerby says to an old fisherman painting a boat. "Yes, I know there're two gs in bugger off!") and delicious incidental detail (Urquhart's unmotivated dance atop his desk top). None of this comedy is forced, always organically emerging from the quirks of character and situation.

Topped off by Mark Knopfler's warm, triumphant theme (a standard now in TV sports montage spots), Local Hero left tracer elements throughout Forsyth's career. He directed Lancaster again as a business tycoon in a series of Foster's lager ads and Mac's character arc of a professional discovering a hollow in his life found a more full blown exploration in Forsyth's next picture, Comfort And Joy. Away from Forsyth, Local Hero provided a template for US TV show Northern Exposure. A more unfortunate bi-product saw swarms of Americans flocking to the Pennan location hoping to experience something akin to Mac's life affirming transformation. Canny yokels once again exploiting the yankee dollar? What a great idea for a movie...

An entertaining, low-key gem.