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Film Review: Local Hero

Local Hero (1983; Directed by Bill Forsyth)

Likable, smart, and gently satirical, Bill Forsyth’s quaintly dated tale of a small Scottish town sent into conniptions by a multimillion-dollar offer from an American oil giant to buy it up and turn it into a refinery is charming in its attempts to give a more nuanced view of life in small rural communities.

In moments, the mild-mannered lawyer enters the booth and then exits it as... SCOTSMAN!

The later Celtic-adult-contempo-hit Waking Ned Devine seems rather influenced by Local Hero, but unlike the romanticized Irish village that bamboozles the big-city lottery folks out of millions for the good of the town, the avarice is much less warm and fuzzy here. With the exception of a beach-dwelling eccentric who holds up the deal (and causes it to transform into something else entirely), all of the colourful rustic villagers are quite happy, eager even, to sell their ancestral property to corporate Yanks.

Nor are urbanites constructed as slick, soulless operators: the town’s negotiator, Urquhart (Denis Lawson, a.k.a Wedge Antilles), is every bit as sharp as Mac (Peter Riegert, probably best known as Jim Carrey’s hapless police lieutenant antagonist in The Mask), and their repartee is quick and never one-sided. Forsyth utilizes a lot of sly visual cues and sneaky verbal suggestions that serve to show this town as anything but your traditional Capra-esque locii of honesty and moral rectitude (a common enough view of small-scale habitation in Britain, if Midsomer Murders‘ catalogue of raging ids is any indication).

Beyond its nuanced thoughts on the urban-rural split, the film is fairly scattershot in terms of real laughs. Peter Capaldi’s gawkish Oldsen is often amusing with his awkward schoolboy crush on a comely local scuba-diving biologist, but the regal Burt Lancaster provides the film’s real appeal as Felix Happer, the hereditary head of Mac’s corporate employer.

Lounging unfulfilled in his opulent office and quarters at the top of a skyscraper like a banished old wizard, Happer wends away the hours with his amateur astronomy habit, hoping to give his name to a comet since he can’t give it to any children (he has none) or to his company (his father bought out the original owner but left his Scottish name intact). There’s an undercurrent of mystic sadness to the performance, but Lancaster mostly plays Happer for cathartic laughs, particularly in his interaction with Moritz, an unorthodox shrink whose method is to berate and insult his client in increasingly determined and elaborate ways (even after he’s been fired). It’s the highlight of amusement in a smart but meandering film about identity and belonging that has something to say about finding your place in the world, but not too much.

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