A Somewhat Listless Northern Exposure Kind of Scenario
Jul 10, 2005 (Updated Sep 28, 2005)
Review by metalluk
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
I enjoyed this film but not to the extent of most of the great films I've been watching during my July extravaganza of great movie from the United Kingdom. Perhaps it's unfair for a film to have to compete with a string of masterpieces. This is one of those films that elicits a wide range of responses from different viewers. I think that there're two main factors at work in that variability of response. One is the distinctive style of humor (which I rather liked). The other, I suspect, is that the emotional plane of this film is pitched very low. It's a film that will relax you, amuse you, and, perhaps, comfort you, but it's not going to move your heart or soul. That, for me, is a deficit. One gal writing at IMDB says that "whenever I am asked my favorite film, I answer Local Hero without hesitation." A male viewer at the same site called it "one of the 10 best movies I've ever seen." Another reviewer, however, calls the film "a pleasant, if undemanding, diversion but, taken as a whole, Local Hero fails to gel." It think it really comes down to whether your tastes and mood are such as to make you open to a bit of pleasant, undemanding diversion, provided, in this instance, by director Bill Forsyth.
Historical Background: William David ("Bill") Forsyth was born on July 29th, 1946, in Glasgow, Scotland. Bill dropped out of high school to take a job as a trainee in a small local film company in the business of making documentaries and films for industry. On his own time, Forsyth began making experimental shorts, using scraps of unused film stock from the company. He attended the National Film School near London and went back to work of documentaries, all the while dreaming of making a feature film. He finally pulled together $10,000 to make his debut feature, That Sinking Feeling (1979), using the volunteer services of friends and a local theater group. Though filmed in just three weeks, it made enough of a splash at festivals in Edinburgh and London to enable Forsyth to acquire commercial backing for his next undertaking, Gregory's Girl (1981). It won the British Academy Award for best original screenplay and also had pretty decent box-office success in America. Local Hero (1983) came next and remains Forsyth's most successful film to date. Forsyth won a British Academy Award for Best Director for the effort. Forsyth then made it three successes in a row with Comfort and Joy (1984). Forsyth then followed the lure of riches to the United States, where he has made at least eight films, but none terribly successful. The best of the lot might be Housekeeping (1987). To his credit, Forsyth brought Scottish filmmaking to international attention, before moving to Hollywood.
The Story: The story begins at a board meeting in the corporate offices of Knox Oil & Gas in Houston. During a slide presentation, outlining a corporate initiative aimed at an oil field off the coast of Scotland, the eccentric Chairman of the Board, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), has dozed off. He can afford to do so because he's apparently in full control of the company, having inherited it from his father. The rest of the meeting takes place in hushed voices so as not to waken the boss. The company wants to build a refinery in rural northern Scotland and the researchers have found the ideal location a remote spot currently occupied by the small, quaint fishing village of Ferness. Happer has selected a young, ambitious executive and deal-closer named Mac MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), for no better reason than his Scottish surname, to travel to Scotland, to buy up the entire village. MacIntyre is less than thrilled about the idea for two reasons. First, as he puts it, "I'm more of a Telex man." He's learned to manipulate modern communication devices but has rather limited face-to-face interpersonal skills. We see him, for example, trying to get a date with a secretary in the next office by calling her over the phone. MacIntyre's second concern is that his ancestry is not really Scottish. His parents were Hungarian immigrants and picked "MacIntyre" when they landed because they thought it sounded "American." Nevertheless, Harper has handpicked MacIntyre for the job and you don't really want to thwart the boss in a corporate environment. Happer calls Mac into his office for a send-off message that turns out to be an added assignment. At night in Scotland, Mac is to keep his eye on the constellation Virgo for any signs of an uncharted comet. Happer, it seems, has an extracurricular fascination with astronomy and hopes to immortalize himself by discovering a comet and having it named "Happer's Comet." The old coot even has a planetarium built into his expansive office. Although the main thrust of the film hereafter moves to Scotland, there's a rather inane subplot that continues in Houston, involving Happer and a bizarre pseudo-therapist, Moritz (Norman Chancer) (his technique involves relentless abuse), who persists even after Happer tries to be rid of him.
Landing in Scotland, Mac looks over the model for the proposed refinery at the company's research facility. Mac is provided with a local man, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), as an assistant, and briefly encounters an attractive and idealistic marine biologist, Marina (Jenny Seagrove), who naively believes that the company's interest in the bay at Ferness is to build a marine laboratory, for good will purposes. Mac and Oldsen are soon driving along desolate roads, through uninhabited territory, both still fantasizing about Marina. Oldsen, who is driving, encounters fog and hits a rabbit. The two young men stop for the night at the side of the road, it being impossible to travel further anyway. They rescue the injured bunny, placing it in the back seat of their vehicle.
The next day, the pair rolls into the small village with their expensive wristwatches, electronic briefcases, and the rabbit, to check in at the only hotel in town. The hotel's proprietor, Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) reluctantly takes time out from connubial duties with his pretty wife Stella (Jennifer Black) to let them into the kitchen for breakfast. Urquhart also turns out to be the town's sole accountant and negotiator for all of the landowners. Everyone, it seems, in Ferness, has multiple jobs and they're amazed to discover that Mac has only one. When there's a job to be done, they all chip in, seemingly even when the job is one of the gals needing to be put in a family way. None of the men have the foggiest idea who might be the father of the one infant in a stroller who shows up periodically throughout the film.
Urquhart is pretty shrewd for a rural hick and figures that stringing the corporate boys along, for a bit, will sweeten the ultimate arrangement. The villagers can all smell the money and are more than willing to sell their way out of what must be a dreary and difficult existence. While Urquhart is playing coy, Mac and Oldsen find themselves biding their time. They've got nothing better to do than meet the locals and walk the beaches. The eccentric collection of locals include a reckless motorcyclist who comprises virtually the totality of traffic on the narrow dirt road, one solitary punk rock groupie, a Russian fisherman, and a black African reverend for the all-white congregation. Gradually, both Mac and Oldsen begin to be transformed by their contact with the rustic beauty of untamed nature. Oldsen's transition is hastened by his reencountering the comely Marina, who is working in the bay in a wet suit. She's an exceptional swimmer and Oldsen is only mildly stunned when he discovers that her toes are webbed.
Mac's transformation has more varied roots. He finds himself gathering seashells from tidal pools. His dress gradually becomes increasingly casual. He leaves his business suit hanging in his room in preference for a sweater and, later, abandons his patent leather shoes and rolls up his pant legs so he can wade in the sea. He even forgets about his fancy watch, which he leaves on a ledge that gets inundated by the surging tide. The only setback for Mac is when he is served rabbit for dinner one evening. Mac finds himself hobnobbing with the locals and envying Urquhart's passionate relationship with Stella, especially after Stella invites Mac to join her for the waltz at the town's dance celebration. Mac is also enchanted by a gorgeous display of northern lights, excitedly calling Happer to describe them to him. Later, in a touching confessional, an intoxicated Mac confides in Gordon that he'd like to exchange lives with him and would especially be indebted if Gordon would leave Stella behind as part of the deal.
Inevitably, a complication develops in the negotiation for the properties. Urquhart had not taken into account the town's hermit-like beach-dweller, Ben (Fulton Mackay), who he had assumed to be merely a squatter. It turns out that the beachfront property has been in Ben's family for 400 years and had been granted to his direct ancestor by the king himself, in exchange for a favor. In contrast to the rest of the community, Ben has no interest in selling out. "Who would look after the beach then?" he asks, adding "It would go to pieces in a short matter of time."
This sets up the film's finale. Happer flies in from Houston, not so much to close the deal as to check out the display of northern lights. Soon, the two old coots, Happer and Ben, are swapping stories and planning an evening of stargazing through Ben's two-inch refractor telescope. Happer decides that they'll go with the marine laboratory after all, combined with an observatory, and orders Mac back to Houston with instructions to the corporate team to draw up an alternative plan for an offshore oil rig and a refinery closer to the commercial outlets. Mac returns to his apartment and the hazy skies of Houston with only a few snapshots and his seashells to keep him connected to the cradle of life.
Themes: On the surface, this film seems to belong to the category of environmentally-conscious fare. If you take that as a given, you could then go on to commend the film for keeping its pro-environmental message subtle enough for even the most inveterate pollution-monger to sit through. Certainly the outcome, with a marine laboratory and a stellar observatory replacing the refinery project can be seen as a good one for the nearly pristine environment surrounding Ferness. The problem with that take on the film is that nearly every one of the villagers was more than happy to sell out their properties for a cut of the quick money. That's why Mac became the eponymous "local hero." It was only the coincidence of one stubborn beach-dweller and an eccentric sky gazer that ensured the positive outcome. It was not a very democratic solution and most of the characters were left disappointed. What kind of message is that in relation to the value of protecting the environment?
The other thematic flaw is that it was really only the outsiders who were awed and entranced by the beauty of the natural environment at Ferness. The local folk were too busy trying to scratch out a life to pay much attention to the beauty in which they lived. I've noted the same phenomenon in relation to the lovely rural environment in which I spend my summers in Maine. It's the people who escape from Boston, New York, and New Jersey who really treasure the slower pace, the face-to-face connecting, and the gorgeous settings. Some of the locals toss up shabby prefab dwellings right next to the roadways and litter their yards with the hulks of long deceased vehicles. It's hard to truly appreciate what you see every day because of the phenomenon called habituation. All this film really says, in the end, is that unspoiled rural areas can look really special to travelers escaping from urban squalor.
Production Values: The screenplay, written by Forsyth himself, provides both strengths and weaknesses. Forsyth takes a relaxed, low-key approach, allowing the personalities of his characters to emerge gradually, mainly through incidents. The storyline avoids the obvious turn of good-natured local folks standing up against greedy and evil corporate types. None of the characters are identifiable as either good or evil to any unusual extent. Forsyth also avoids a stereotypically idyllic presentation of Ferness, periodically interrupting the silence of nature with the noise of jets flying overhead on practice bombs runs. A fume-spewing motorcycle can also be seen diminishing the air quality. The ending is subtle though cryptic and avoids both the obvious feel-good or cynical possibilities. The humor is reminiscent of the Ealing style, mostly evoking amusement rather than outright guffaws. Forsyth exhibits respect for his audience both by keeping the humor delicately subtle and leaving us with a positive but realistic perspective on the quality of humanity.
The weakness of this film's script is that is really provides no emotional punch. There's never any tension generated, except for Ben's unwillingness to part with his family heritage, and even that is played out in a very tame manner. More than one reviewer has likened this film to the television series Northern Exposure and it is a comparison that had occurred to me as well. In both the film and the television series, a young man from the city is thrown into a remote rural environment and has to cope with strange customs and eccentric locals. In my opinion, Northern Exposure was an exceptionally excellent television series and it's perhaps too high a standard to ask a film to emulate, but Local Hero falls short of the better episodes of Northern Exposure, by a wide margin. Rob Morrow's Dr. Joel Fleischman was a more distinctive and better rendered character than is Mac. The locals were more genuinely eccentric in Northern Exposure. One indication of Forsyth's lack of experience as a scriptwriter is that he had to resort to out-of-place types (a punk rocker, a black reverend) to simulate eccentricity rather than constructing genuinely eccentric individuals. Forsyth could have studied films like Amarcord or Antonias Line for examples of how to construct believably eccentric characters. The single biggest difference between this film and the television series Northern Exposure, however, harkens back to the issue of tension. What most made Northern Exposure exceptional was the palpable sexual tension between Fleischman and Janine Turner's Maggie O'Connell. All we get in that line in Local Hero is a not very credible flirtation between Marina and the goofy Oldsen and the all too easy husband-and-wife romps between Gordon and Stella. The only real sexual tension in the film comes when poor Mac gets his sexual thermostat thrust upward by waltzing with the already-spoken-for Stella. Neither of the lead actresses in this film can hold a candle to Janine Turner for sexual appeal.
The casting was pretty decent, but not good enough to invest the film with real delight. Burt Lancaster did all he could with the part of Happer. Peter Riegert was a bit low-key and his character was inadequately developed to boot. Norman Chancer did the best he could with the absurd therapist character. Denis Lawson was commendable as Urquhart. The two lead women just weren't sexy enough to create much energy in that domain. I thought Peter Capaldi much too ridiculous as Oldsen. In my opinion, the Oldsen character should have been omitted entirely so that Riegart's lead character could have been better developed and given the romantic angle with Marina. The character actors playing the villagers were sound but their characters were not adequately developed.
The film's best character, really, was the setting the lovely remote landscapes and seascapes. Chris Menges gives us a lovely sampling of sunsets, rolling waves, and expansive skies, both sunlit and starry. Mark Knopfler provided a silky smooth guitar score that soars into lofty realms near the end. Knopfler was lead guitarist for Dire Straits.
Bottom-Line: I'm torn between three-stars and four for this film. It could definitely be four-stars if you're in the mood for mellow, laid-back, amusing entertainment. It could even be five-stars for the right person in the right mood. I think, however, I have to go with three for a film that doesn't match up well against a television drama series, even if that series was one of the better ones to come along. The running time for this film is 111 minutes. The extras on the full-screen, Warner Brothers DVD include only the trailer, scene access, and optional subtitles in either English or French.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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