" Now there’s something you don’t see every day "
— Kathy Bates, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

Noi Albinoi

Mystery and ambivalence about this Bleak portrait of isolation are amplified on DVD —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

Noi the Albino spends winter in Iceland alone

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Local Hero is one of my all-time favorite movies. I can watch it again and again, year after year. Each time I see something new, and each time I see something familiar. It is my yearly pilgrimage to Scotland to visit old friends and homey places.

The setting is a charming small town called Ferness. The town is geographically and economically isolated. It consists of a small row of houses, pressed between a cliff and the sea. There is a pub, a tiny hotel, a church, and one red phone box.

The inhabitants of Ferness are good, kind, small-town folk. Fishermen pull a living from the sea and everyone else makes a living however they can, doubling up on jobs when necessary. They may appear quirky at first, but once you get to know them, they are no more unusual than your own friends and family.

Ferness sounds like an idyllic town, ripe for a fairy tale. The film does indeed start out that way. There is an uncaring villain who works for corporate developers. There is a town full of peasants in danger of losing their charming homes, their rustic land, their simple livelihood to make way for big business. There is even a mermaid.

What actually happens is less a fairy tale and more human nature.

A big oil company sets out to buy the scenic little town on a bay in north Scotland. It plans to replace the town with an oil refinery.

The oil company sends “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) from acquisitions to buy the land. (He’s actually Hungarian, but he’s got the right name for the job.) He’d rather deal over the phone, but the company insists he be on-site. He arrives and meets Danny (Peter Capaldi), his assistant while in Scotland, and Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a marine biologist working for the Aberdeen branch of Knox Oil, who wants to turn the bay into a marine sanctuary. (She knows nothing of the company’s plans, and wouldn’t believe them even if she knew.)

Mac and Danny head up to Ferness where they meet Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), hotel proprietor, accountant, and barkeep. Mac confirms to Gordon the rumor that the oil company wants to buy all of Ferness. He entrusts Gordon, as the local accountant, to meet with the populace and work out some numbers for the purchase of the town. In the meantime, Gordon suggests that Mac take a look around; get to know the place.

Mac spends the day settling in and walking around the beach in his suit and tie with Danny trailing behind. They spot an old man in the distance, doing the same.

The townspeople of this paradise are thrilled at the chance to sell their land and become instant millionaires. That night, when Mac has to call home, he learns his name and reputation have preceded him. He has become a local hero to these people he’ll make rich, and they instantly take a liking to him.

The next day Mac has lightened up a bit. He still has his suit on, but he fits in better. The locals are starting to accept him as part of the population, and he’s even learned a name or two. Eventually Mac slips farther and farther into the local life. Each scene shows Mac in less and less formal clothes as he grows more and more fond of Ferness. Meanwhile, Gordon carries on the business of arranging for the sale of the land.

As the deal draws near, the locals call a ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-Lee”, it means town meeting) to socialize and talk about the deal. Everyone gets drunk and talks about how they will spend their millions. Grizzled fishermen argue over the relative merits of Maseratis and Rolls-Royces.

Everyone has a great time with the possible exception of Mac. Mac has grown to love this town and its people. The ceilidh only cements the sense of community that Mac wants in his life, that only the undeveloped village could provide. Ironically, he will be the destroyer of the village, and even more ironically, he will be the only one who feels its loss.

At the emotional apex of the story, Mac, uninhibited with drink, asks Gordon to trade with him. Everything. The car, the house, the job. Mac wants to trade his Porsche, his six-figure salary, and his stock options, for Gordon’s life in Ferness, doing odd jobs, running the hotel, being the local bartender, and living a simple life. Nothing comes of the proposition, but it is the point when Mac sheds his shell and bares his soul.

The deal is nearly sealed when, the next day, Mac and Gordon get a shock. Ben (Fulton Mackay), the old man who walks the beach, actually owns the beach, and he won’t sell. Mac’s boss, Mr. Happer (Burt Lancaster) flies to Ferness to close the deal himself.

Happer and Ben, who share an interest in astronomy, become fast friends and somehow, Old Ben manages to change Happer’s mind, at least about the refinery. Happer still wants to acquire the site, but not to destroy it. He wants to build an observatory, an institute for scientific research. Marina was right all along.

Nearly everyone is happy with Happer’s new arrangement. The townspeople will still get to sell their property. Happer gets his bay. Ben keeps his beach. Marina gets her laboratory, and Danny gets Marina.

But not everyone wins. In the most devastating moment of the film, Happer tells Mac to pack up and head back to Houston immediately to take care of business from that end. It becomes painfully clear how far Mac has fallen in love with Ferness—when he gets the order to return, he is in a sweater, he has five o’clock shadow, and he’s eating an orange that Ben found on the beach. When the film cuts to him in his creaseless suit and crisp tie, we understand what a transformation he had undergone while in town.

Mac obeys his boss, but before he leaves he puts his outer shell back on. He insists on paying for his stay at the hotel, he shaves, he dresses properly, and his businesslike manner almost conceals the disappointment in his face.

He walks into his cold, cramped, fluorescent apartment, smells the sea shells he brought back, and hangs up the snapshots he took of Ferness.

He steps out on the balcony and looks out at the bleak neon skyline of Houston, with its traffic and sirens, longing for the friendly open streets of Ferness.

Mac can’t return and see Ferness. Work will presumably keep him in Houston, and development will soon forever change the place.

But I can go back, year after year, and I do. With each viewing, the simple joy of life at Ferness, and the transitory pricelessness of that particular time and place becomes more and more dear.

  • D. Taylor: I have just read your review of Local Hero, with which I fully agree. Except for one point.
    You finish your review by concluding that Mac has returned to his old job in Houston and has left Furness behind forever. I think the final scene where we see the lone telephone box in Furness ringing and ringing tells me that Mac is calling to speak to someone, anyone, because he's lonely and to cement his decision that he will give up Knox Oil and return as a resident to be amongst the people that he now considers to be his true "friends".
    Of course, we can hope that Happer will see fit to give him a job at the observatory to be built there, but that is just my wishful thinking.
    Either way, it's one of my top ten favorite films of all time. December 15, 2006 reply
  • David: Local Hero is also one of my favourite films and while I like the story line, I am even more engaged by the place and the characters.

    Most of us seek the security of place and Ferness appears to be one of the most secure places on earth. And just as we have been shaped by our increasingly frenetic North American place, so too have the characters of Ferness been formed by the serene isolation of theirs. These characters represent a departure from much of our society; they share a commitment to people rather than things, a dedication to deeper relationships that even (in 1983) transcends the Cold War.

    But there's more in this movie. The irony of both the buyers and the sellers switching sides becomes even more telling when placed in the context of the hero's quest. Mac, the hero, sets out on his mission determined to buy the village before realizing he is pursuing the wrong goal, one that will ultimately destroy not only Ferness, but the fundamental values that have been hidden all these years beneath his business suit.

    Furthermore, the movie plays with the allegory of the Garden of Eden. The snake (Mac) comes into the garden (Ferness) with the apple (money) determined to seduce Adam and Eve (the people of Ferness), but the snake ends up being seduced by the garden. The people, although they take the money, maintain their paradise (the observatory rather than the oil depot) thanks to the intervention of God (Burt Lancaster's character arriving from the sky in a helicopter).

    Although the movie is more than 20 years old, the basic message - that people matter more than profit - is one that rings truer every year as this planet becomes one big corporate head office.

    The moment when we hear the phone in the red booth ring is iconic. Mac, who starts the movie as a symbol of corporate greed, comes to represent the universal and primal search for human contact in our impersonal world. When he calls back to Ferness in the last scene, he is calling for all of us.

    February 11, 2007 reply
  • Robert White: "Local Hero" is special to me because I was a Houston oilman who worked in the building they used for the set of Lancaster's office in the film. I also traveled to Scotland frequently in the first few years of the North Sea oil boom.

    To really understand the movie you have to understand pre-oil boom Scotland, which was a very poor place. Aberdeen had suffered 300 years of economic and population decline before the boom hit and my first sight of it was of a town of shuttered stores, empty offices and run down houses. Most villages were equally poor, and the references in the movie to everyone doing multiple jobs to make ends meet was a reality.

    The people in the move seem very much like many I remember from the late 60s and 1970s in Scotland.
    June 25, 2007 reply
  • fiona Long: I just got done with seeing this movie. (I'm a little behind in my movie watching.)I loved it and also think that the end of the movie is Mac calling to say that he is coming back as this is what he has been looking for. I hope so anyway. My interest though is in the location. I'm from Ireland originally and the scenery is breathtaking. This is where I would like to go to walk on the beach and meet people like this.Thats my idea of a vaction . People and beauty. I have always wanted to see Scotland. Does anyone know the exact location? Fiona July 22, 2007 reply
  • Chas C-Q: Fiona asks: "Does anyone know the exact location?"

    * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085859/locations) says:

    Pennan, Aberdeenshire (Ferness - includes red phone box)

    Camusdarrach Sands, Camusdarrach, Morar, Mallaig (beach scenes)

    Morar Beach, Camusdarrach, Morar, Mallaig (beach scenes)

    Lochailort Inn, Lochailort (interiors: Macaskill Arms, the Ferness inn)

    Hilton (village hall - ceilidh)

    Pole of Itlaw, Aberdeenshire (Ferness - village shop)

    Our Lady of the Braes Roman Catholic Church, Polnish
    (village church)

    and others. HTH.
    July 28, 2007 reply
  • andrew s: This is just the best movie every.
    March 14, 2008 reply
  • Marty Mapes: Found a neat picture of the location on National Geographic

    http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/wallpaper/cottages-boats-richardson_pod_image.html May 21, 2008 reply
  • dainbug: Absolutely love this movie. NOW..there is the lab scene. I haven't worked it all out, but it seems to me this is the Movie in the Movie scene. Has anyone else had that feeling? July 25, 2008 reply
  • Marty Mapes: The lab scene is the movie in the movie scene? Huh? I'd love to hear your theory but I don't understand the sentence. July 25, 2008 reply
  • Mark: Hi, I have some lovely pictures of Pennan, including the phone box! There is very little there now, it looks like some of the homes are only lived in a few months of the year. Also the pub (the Pennan Inn) is now closed down. There is a very sorry looking plaque on the wall on the Pennan Inn commerating the film. If anyone would like some pictures of Pennan just email me: mark at markwills dot co dot uk.
    I also have the telephone number of the phone box ;-) August 2, 2008 reply
  • PJ: Simply the most wonderful uplifting film of all time and its has the best line ever - " Are there 2 G's in..............." December 6, 2008 reply
    • Marty Mapes: "I'd make a good Gordon, Gordon."
      "Good sky you've got here MacIntyre. Well done." January 19, 2011 reply
  • Philip: This is an amazing movie, it strikes that real life nerve that i often feel when I've visited places and met and bonded with people there. When I arrive back home I pine for that place and to talk again with those people who seem to be larger than life. I live in Australia and was compelled to visit Pennan when I was in Scotland last year. The final scene is very emotional, Mark's evocative and haunting musical refrain climaxes here helping to seed that emotion... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPuj9_94TBQ ... October 7, 2010 reply
  • Bill Hamilton: Absolutely a fantastic movie. Was it based on a book and if so who wrote the book and what is the title?

    Thank you. January 6, 2011 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Nope. Original screenplay written by Bill Forsyth. January 6, 2011 reply
  • Adam Vant: OK, Local Hero fans, without cheating, what are the call letters of the radio station Mac is listening to in the opening credits? If you're a fan of the film then you should know. January 19, 2011 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Without cheating, it would be funniest if they were K-N-O-X, but I don't remember if that's true. I do remember that "thigns are gummin' up" and that the Dow Jones was "up" to some three-digit number. January 19, 2011 reply
      • Adam Vant: Indeed you are correct. The call letters of the radio station Mac was listening to during the opening credits are KNOX. May 9, 2011 reply
  • Anne: This makes my short list of best movies, whether all time best or filmed in part in Texas. I was very active in the oil industry at the time it was filmed. The entrance to Knox Oil and Gas looked like the entrance to my work although the exterior shot is different.

    I always laugh at the opening credits. For you hard core viewers, the real freeways are I10 (I9) and I59 (I49). There is a South Houston not a South Texas and at the time it was filmed Allison was the hurricane that threatened and actually hit Houston. Houston was actually hit and downtown was closed due to the danger of falling glass. The air quality report broadcast does not have sulfur or lead, but the pollen level is accurate. The one big thing though it that he is driving away from the main oil areas in downtown Houston. The other nice send up was the watch alarm playing The Yellow Rose of Texas.

    The themes of the isolation of the modern way of live compared to what is our true nature, are compelling. Mac trying to get a date for the evening before he leaves speaks of his social isolation. As painful as that was, the isolation in the last scene when he comes back to his sterile apartment now seems even worse because he realizes how lonely his life really is. He has a wonderful life in the material sense, but he is as lonely as Haper is living in his apartment in his penthouse office suite (by the way, our boss was rumored to have such a suite off his office).

    Haper seeks to be remembered, to mean something to someone, to pass his name on as he has never been married to anything but his work. Mac is in danger of becoming like Haper but he doesn't know it.

    Mac comes alive once he makes it to Ferness. He discovers the meaning of community (the baby everyone takes care of and no one claims) and what it means to be human. Borders mean nothing....the Russian and the African priest are just as much a part of the community as Mac becomes.

    Without boring you about the plot, which if you have gotten this far down the comments, you have deduced or seen.....Mac returns to his rather sterile life, but now he realizes how lonely it is and what is missing. The phone ringing in the booth at the end is his way to try to reconnect to the place that holds his heart. As the Russian sang, even the Lone Star state (Texas) get lonesome for a lone star man.

    The movie is really full of magical moments and is story telling at its best. It is full of quirky characters, comets, northern lights, and even a mermaid. July 25, 2011 reply