The films of Bill Forsyth are well-observed, genial comedies — and yet the director’s humor is intermingled with a powerful strain of sadness, an attentiveness to protagonists lost and longing. This is true of the Glaswegian ice cream-war tale Comfort and Joy as well as Forsyth’s version of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, in which barely contained characters can delight and alarm a viewer all in the same action. (The exceptions are his early, sunnier comedies, That Sinking Feeling and the ultra-charming Gregory’s Girl — another perennial Scottish favourite.)
This melancholy is also present in Forsyth’s Local Hero, probably the best-known and most-beloved of all Scottish pictures (it has been treated to restorations, sparkly-clean home format releases and a stage musical adaptation all within the last year). The film details how “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), a yuppie oil executive, comes to the fictionalised seaside village of Ferness (really Pennan in Aberdeenshire) hoping to acquire the land for his company, Knox Oil, and turn it into a refinery, only to realise he loves the place and the people who populate it.
But Mac’s task is complicated on all sides. His boss, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), wants him to focus more on the sky than the earth and sea, as Felix is an intrepid star-gazer who’s hoping for a discovery that could make his name. The villagers, too, pose their own problems, beyond the immediately obvious ones. They are, by and large, ready and willing to sell the land and reap the riches, but Gordon (Denis Lawson), the accountant (and hotelier) has other ideas. He thinks the best strategy is to demur, and in doing so, bulk up the asking price.
Among Forsyth’s gallery of low-spirits, from Bill Paterson’s recently heartbroken radio host Dickie Bird in Comfort and Joy to Christine Lahti’s itinerant-at-heart Sylvie in Housekeeping, Riegert’s Mac occupies a singular place. Whereas the two performances mentioned display similar patterns (they appear to grow more dishevelled and ill-at-ease as their stories progress), Mac’s dejection is to a greater degree hidden — only in the film’s final scenes does it emerge outright. Riegert performs Mac as the sort of person who laughs at his own jokes when no one else does; the sort who exudes half a genuine charm and half a smarm; the sort who rarely looks the person he’s speaking to in the eyes. In the process of acclimating to the speed of the village, Mac learns what a place can mean to the people it sustains, although it helps when the place is as preternaturally gorgeous as Ferness is allowed to be through Chris Menges’ cinematography, with its gloaming a visual concert of gradations in orange, lilac and pastel blue — not forgetting the interruptions of meteor showers and a lively display of the Aurora Borealis.
But it’s not only the setting, but the inhabitants who win Mac’s affections, and the villagers grow to like Mac in return. He becomes part of the community: a vehicle through which kindness can be enacted and reciprocated. The comic coterie of the village establishes itself warmly, with each bit character given enough of a presence, a telling gesture or a moment of individuation. There’s Ben (Fulton Mackay), living in a shack on the beach, whose lineage becomes an essential part of any deal to be made; Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a marine researcher who frequents the bay, casting a more literal than expected enchantment on Danny (a fresh-faced and obsequious Peter Capaldi), Mac’s lackey; and Stella (Jennifer Black), trying to spend as much time as possible in bed with her husband, Gordon. Forsyth, like Vincente Minnelli, seems to be a director who doesn’t believe in the idea of an “extra”; the other filmmaker with whom Forsyth can be profitably compared is Jonathan Demme, in the way that small scenes and interactions speak loudly about the directors’ generous life philosophies.
Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits, whose delightful score permeates, demonstrates his facility with song-writing during Local Hero’s lovely cèilidh scene. The dance is organised to celebrate the near-completion of the sale, and for patrons to drunkenly luxuriate in the confidences of new and old friends. Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a soviet fisherman and customer of Gordon’s accountancy firm, comes ashore for the party and ends up leading the band in song. The song (“Even the Lone Star State Gets Lonesome”), through Victor’s performance of it, is an eruption of joy — and yet the lyrics speak to and about Mac, even if he’s been too companionable with the bottle to notice: “But someday when my rolling days are over / I will find a place to call my own.” Ferness seems like the place.
But the strongest way in which Forsyth articulates Local Hero’s various doubles (environmentalism/corporate interest; drilling into the ground for oil/looking at the stars; observation of comic performance/exposing the source of that same comedy as deep-welled desolation) is in Lancaster’s performance. Happer is an oil mogul in crisis: he sleeps through board meetings, snoring so loudly his staff have to convey important company notices at the level of a whisper; he’s seeing perhaps the world’s least reputable therapist, whose methods include an elaborate ego-antagonism game — it’s not going well; he’s imponderably lonely; he feels emasculated by not having his name as the company’s title, and this is the reason he recruits Mac to watch the stars above the Scottish coast, so that, if he spots a comet, it can be named Happer. He’s an astounding mélange of cathexes, and Lancaster’s expression of this mess of feelings is indelible. His sharp manner, quick orders, confident assertions: all of these are evasions. He and Mac are two more quintessential Forsyth characters, given the time and space, in the director’s magnanimous scheme, to wend their ways and wonder what it means to belong.