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Local Hero (1983)

Welcome to the Overlooked Hotel, where guests are invited to disagree with the conventional wisdom and re-evaluate the underappreciated.

Although Local Hero is acknowledged as a classic now, it took many years for it to be recognised as such, and even today, despite its critical success, it remains off the list of many of the greatest comic films of all time. Its understated beauty and above all its perfect example of understated, gentle humour is as ephemeral as it is reliable. Bill Forsyth’s fourth film (written and directed by him) was always famous for it’s music, the Mark Knopfler soundtrack being instantly memorable, despite the general lack of recognition the film received. But Local Hero’s comedy is a misunderstood and difficult to replicate style of humour that exists in the sideways glance, a subversion of assumed knowledge and quirky, subtle characterization. Local Hero is the thinking person’s comedy, without a central message despite giving the impression that it has one, and timelessly funny, despite its being firmly cemented in a certain time and a certain place. It’s a comedic masterpiece which finally, more than thirty years later, is seen for its brilliance, even if it’s still seen by fewer people than it deserves.

Key to the success of the film is the multiple, perfectly wrought plot lines. Almost every character has their own story, and yet each is flawlessly executed, in most cases with mini plots, climaxes and resolutions that increase our deep association with characters through their various arcs. The primary story is that of Furness, the small Scottish coastal town that sits upon the perfect location for a giant oil refinery that the American conglomerate Knocks Oil and Gas wants to build. “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Reigert) is being sent by Knox to ease the locals into a settlement for the land, unbeknownst that the locals can’t wait to sell their land and are hoping to take the large oil company for all they can. As the plotting reveals each side of the negotiation thinking they are outwitting the other, it gets funnier and funnier. And yet, the side plots are the film's strengths also, each as skillfully formed as the primary: Happer’s (Burt Lancaster) abusive therapist who is trying to stun him out of a complacent life with little human connection using aggressive therapy techniques, the arrival of the capitalist Russian fishing boat captain (Christopher Rozycki) and his arguing wife as she drops him off to meet his lover, Danny’s (Peter Capaldi) blossoming love affair with Marina (Jenny Seagrove) who has a wee spot of mermaid in her (part of the ode to magic realism the film projects), Gordon Urquhart’s (Denis Lawson) attempts at manipulation that result in the lovely transference of roles between he and Mac as the small relaxed villager is motivated by money and the high level oil executive who becomes transformed by the lazy village life. Not to mention Urquhart’s relationship with his other-worldly wife Stella (Jennifer Black) and their cooking and preparing of the rabbit with two names. Yes, in Local Hero, even the wild rabbit has full and complex character development.

All of this acts as a framework for the superb running gags that float around the film, aside from the budding plot lines – the motorcyclist who almost runs Mac over every time he leaves the hotel, the locals perpetually pitching in with coins so Mac can call Houston from the famous red public phone, Gordon and Stella’s throbbing lust, the baby with no father, and the endless painting of the boats name, are just a few examples of the subtly clever farce. The comedy is shy and achingly subtle, something we see far too little of these days. What Peter Reigert can do with a sideways glance has never been bettered in any other film.

But in the end, despite the flawless characterization, superb performances and delightful comedy that slides in, never forced, it is the beauty of the countryside and the injection of magic realism that gives Local Hero the edge over all its competitors and establishes it as truly great. It is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Chris Menges, including images of the Aurora Borealis, a lone red telephone booth ringing out into the night, and the wonderful scene on the beach as the villagers converge upon Ben Knox, the low flying light in the sky that gets closer and closer only to reveal itself as Happer’s helicopter. Ben and Marina know the place is “special” and more than once it is referred to as magical.

Apparently, the story goes, as Local Hero has become more popular, the small town of Pennan on the Aberdeenshire coast now welcomes tourists who wander in to have photos taken by the red telephone booth. Yet, for all its welcome tourist dollars, Local Hero is still nowhere near as celebrated as it should be. It took decades for the critics to jump on board and recognise the importance of the small film, and it looks like it will take decades still for film lovers to catch up. 

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