By Peter Bradshaw
Bill Forsyth’s wonderfully wistful and charming comedy is rereleased after 40 years, and its happy-sad aroma is still as pungent as ever. It has a claim to be the last movie with the authentic spirit of the Ealing comedies; although with a longer perspective we can also see how it’s also indirectly influenced by producer David Puttnam in its high-minded spirit of Anglo-American amity.
The scene is a fictional fishing village in western Scotland, making its modest living from the lobster bound for the fancy restaurants of London and Paris, but which the locals can’t afford to eat. Peter Riegert plays Mac, a junior oil executive from Texas obsessed with work and material values, who has been tasked by his eccentric billionaire boss, Felix Happer, to travel to this village and persuade the entire community to sell up so that Happer can build a refinery there and capitalise on the new gush of North Sea oil. (There is a scene in which Happer appears to get a call from Margaret Thatcher in person.) Happer is played with unique brio and gusto by Burt Lancaster, whose legendary presence in itself confers something magical on the proceedings.
Slowly but surely, hard-hearted capitalist Mac is beguiled by the beauty of the place and the gentleness of the locals, including the local hotelier-slash-accountant Gordon Urquhart, played by Denis Lawson; and poor Mac falls unrequitedly in love with his wife, Stella (Jennifer Black). There is also the refinery’s researcher Danny Oldsen, played by a boyish Peter Capaldi; there is nothing here of the brutal political spin doctor he played on TV’s The Thick of It, but in the part’s wit and whimsy, you might see the ghost of Capaldi’s other great role: Doctor Who.
Danny has himself formed a tendresse for the company’s marine biologist Marina (played with dry wit by Jenny Seagrove), who swims with mermaid grace around the shore. Perhaps all too late, Mac confronts two dilemmas: he is falling in love with a landscape and a community that he is there to destroy, and he realises that his money-grubbing life in the big city is pretty pointless. In any case, the deal might not even go through: a hermit figure called Ben, who owns the beach, might not sell. He is played with terrific presence by Fulton Mackay – a lovely performance, and very different from his fierce prison warder in TV’s Porridge.
In the early 80s, the idea of building an oil refinery didn’t have the frisson of darkness that it might have now, although this movie certainly saw that drilling for oil meant despoiling nature, and also that the oil business had a high-handed attitude to local communities who didn’t speak English. (The script skates over the question of whether Happer would pay the locals as much money for building an observatory as he would for an oil refinery.) But Local Hero snares your heart because it takes on a fantasy element: something to do with Happer’s visionary obsession with the stars. When he arrives in Scotland by helicopter, it’s as if he’s comes down from another planet: America. It’s such a pleasure to see it again.