As a grizzled, sad-eyed homeless man making his annual journey from Scotland to London for the Christmas holiday, Peter Mullan brings warmth and soul to the modest British weepie “Hector,” and the film doesn’t require — or offer — much more than that. In his debut as writer-director, Jake Gavin, a former photojournalist, casts a sympathetic eye toward society’s most invisible members and the quietly heroic people who work in shelters and medical clinics. His screenplay, however, is markedly less assured, making the near-fatal mistake of withholding a key piece of information until the third act. On balance, “Hector” reps a sweet and accessible first effort, anchored to a Mullan performance that should punch its ticket to territories outside the U.K.
Taking cues from Ken Loach in more than just the casting department, Gavin cares more about establishing friendship and community among the underclass than manufacturing conflict. The day-to-day struggle of finding food and surving the dreary persistence of Scottish weather provides all the narrative tension the film needs for the first half, as Hector (Mullan) bunkers with his friends under sheets of cardboard. For the past 15 years, Hector has been ambling his way south to a London hostel for Christmas, but this time, he’s looking to reconnect with his estranged brothers and sister along the way.
Looking significantly older than his age — and with a broken-down, hitch-stepping body to match — Hector has enough experience on the road to charm his way to the shelter in London, where Sara (Sarah Solemani), a veteran caretaker, has been saving him a bunk. Hector seems comforted by the familiar holiday rituals of the shelter, and Sara helps him search for his estranged siblings, who he hopes to see before making his way back to Scotland.
Why the estrangement? What’s kept them apart all these years? What happened to Hector that landed him in permanent state of limbo? Gavin makes the audience wait on the answer, perhaps speculating over possible reasons (mental illness? drug addiction?) that Hector was expelled from a more comfortable life. When the shoe finally drops, Mullan lands the emotions with the full force of someone who’s been living with a secret pain all these years. It also clarifies relationships in the film that are no longer a mystery, but a present reckoning with a past grievance. There’s a good argument for Gavin needing to hold this secret for as long as Hector does, but the film spends too much time languishing in vague, dull ache.
Though guilty of succumbing to sentiment (the folky, acoustic score by Emily Barker lays it on a bit thick), “Hector” has an abundance of heart, proceeding under the bracingly sincere belief that decency and charity are everywhere. A deliveryman helps Hector and his friends prepare for winter by “liberating” a few heavy orange jackets, a cafe owner offers tea and biscuits and friendly conversation, and there’s not an unkind soul in the shelter or the medical clinic. Under the circumstances, it would inaccurate to hail “Hector” for its Christmas cheer, but the radiant spirit of the holidays runs through it like smoke through a chimney flue.
Of the resourceful tech credits, David Raedeker’s surpassingly beautiful widescreen cinematography is the standout. The Scottish exteriors are particularly welcome in the sprawl of a road picture, but the hazy, damp textures of the milieu mirror the emotions throughout.