After making the grade internationally with the sleeper hit, “Gregory’s Girl,” Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth has broken the sophomore sesh jinx the only way he could, by making an even better film. While modest in intent and gentle in feel, “Local Hero” is loaded with wry, offbeat humor and is the sort of satisfying, personal picture that is becoming an increasingly rare commodity these days. David Putnam’s first production since “Chariots of Fire” has little in the way of obvious commercial hooks, and Warners will have to give it a chance to breathe if it’s to make its way in the world, but good reviews followed by word of mouth could built it into a steady b.o.
Essentially, a comedy about a serious situation, pic is dominated by a constantly surprising sense of whimsicality which never becomes predictable and therefore catches the viewer off guard throughout. Basic story has Peter Riegert, rising young executive in an enormous Houston oil firm, sent to Scotland to clinch a deal to buy up an entire village, where the company intends to construct a new oil refinery.
Given the ecological consciousness that’s spread in recent years, first switch on normal expectations is that, far from being resistant to the idea of having their surroundings ruined by rapacious, profit-minded Yankees, local Scots can hardly wait to sign away their town, so strong is the smell of money in the air.
Naturally, negotiations take somewhat longer than expected, which means that Riegert can’t help but become involved in the affairs of the natives. But there is no predictable romance, no convulsive occurrence to push the film into false melodrama. Basically, whole story is comprised of delightful human moments, with just enough narrative push to keep it moving.
Back in Houston, oil magnate Burt Lancaster keeps up to date on the deal’s progress with occasional phone calls to Riegert, but is more concerned with his prodding, sadistic psychiatrist and his obsessive hobby of astronomy, which seems to dictate everything he does. Character is a looney conception, and Lancaster gives it a marvelously bonkers reading, although ending of the film falls somewhat flat due to the illogical nature of the man’s climatic decisions.
Almost in the manner of classic American comedies of the 1930s, pic is overflowing with memorable supporting characters. There’s Riegert’s Scottish oil company counterpart, whose accent is so thick one thinks they might not be able to communicate well in English, but who turns out to speak over a half-dozen languages; the local personal, a man named Macpherson, who happens to be black African; the manager and cook of the village’s only inn, who wears another hat as the chief negotiator of the deal; a beautiful young woman with a special interest in the sea, who physically seems to have begun a transformation into a mermaid, and a visiting Russian sailor with an active interest in Western investment markets and a very unusual style as a country-western singer.
Just when it appears that Riegert has finally struck a deal with the locals, a major snag crops up and Lancaster himself turns up on the beach to iron things out. Although it’s been well prepared for, ending nevertheless comes off a unconvincing, given the economic imperatives of the oil business.
Riegert’s underplaying initially seems a bit inexpressive, but ultimately pays off in a droll performance. As his Scottish buddy, the gangling Peter Capaldi is vastly amusing, and Denis Lawson is very good as the community’s chief spokesman.
Two main women present, Jenny Seagrove as the aptly named Marina and Jennifer Black as Lawson’s warm wife, are terrifically attractive and provide ample fantasy material for Capaldi and Riegert, respectively.
Pic not only benefits from the beautiful Scottish setting, but from the remarkable contrast between it and Houston. In look and temperament, two locales could hardly be more dissimilar, an aspect which quietly underlines one of the film’s important themes.
Given a larger canvas, director Forsyth has in no way attempted to overreach himself or the material, keeping things modest and intimate throughout, but displaying a very acute sense of comic insight. Tech work is fine, and a lot of imagination has gone into the fabulous design of Lancaster’s penthouse abode.