The story of someone who goes to a place and a people so different from his/her own, usually in self-interest, and, in the process, discovers something surprising: themselves. Serendipity. A very familiar cinematic trope that we’ve seen over and over, from the ridiculous (Pretty Woman) to the sublime (Local Hero). It’s called ‘the fish out of water’ trope.
Local Hero ranks for many – critics, cineastes – as one of the finest films ever made in Britain – or indeed anywhere. Its heart and complexity, its clever crafting of stereotypes and personalities that are so brilliantly subverted, make it a far harder film to pin down than a fish…Well, out of water. Like many of my favourite films (The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, The Graduate and Roman Holiday, to name a few), despite its humour, Local Hero‘s central theme is the serious, dangerous and moral challenge that we all face from our first awareness of socialisation: whether to conform or to embrace non-conformity. And, when we’ve settled, as most of us do, on conformity, will anything come along to condemn our choice and destabilise our place of safety? We spend most of our lives part wishing for it, part dreading it.
Those films above have happy endings and unhappy endings. Some have the halfway house of compromise with some degree of salvation (The Philadelphia Story, The Graduate). But most films of this type have, unsurprisingly, unhappy endings. (For this is not just reel life, you understand, this is also real life.) Perhaps none more so than The Wizard of Oz (and you thought I might say Roman Holiday or The Godfather). Salman Rushdie has written superbly on Wizard for the BFI Film Classics series – it’s a modern mini-classic of a text. He points out that, ultimately, Dorothy not only rejects the life of Oz (understandable, to some extent – we all have to come down eventually), but that she also rejects the zany but, finally, crucial life lessons that Oz had to offer. She settles for the black and white life of Kansas, on the farm, infantilised and condemned to a place where nothing will ever happen to her, declaring that if she ever needs ‘to go looking for my heart’s desire again, I’ll not look further than my own back yard’. The technicolour journey of independence, self-reliance, courage and ingenuity has all been for nought. Just what kind of mentor was Glinda, anyhow?
But I digress.
Without any serious spoilers: Local Hero is the story of Mac, a Houston yuppie, working for Knox Oil and Gas. By night, through the windows of Mac’s fancy apartment, we see the lights of Houston twinkle. He’s work-mad. He has failed relationships with women and colleagues, such that they either never appear on screen or are barely aware of his existence in the flesh. He’s an alienated man in a synthetic landscape. He’s a plastic man, with a contrived Scottish name to disguise his Hungarian roots. It is from his very plasticity that his journey begins. The boss of his corporation, Happer, assigns to him the role of purchasing the picturesque Scottish village of Ferness. The company wants to situate an oil refinery there. Happer is convinced that Mac’s heritage will enable him in the art of friendly persuasion when brokering a deal with the inhabitants. Astronomy-crazed Happer also wants Mac to monitor the night skies above Ferness, telling him that he must pay particular attention to the constellation Virgo (virgin).
Mac doesn’t want to go, of course. But, being a man of work, go he does. He is met at the airport by the local Knox Oil and Gas rep Danny. En route, they run over a rabbit in the fog. Mac takes the injured rabbit into the car (it is our first indication of an authentic humanity) and together the three continue on to Ferness. There they meet Gordon. Gordon is a man of many trades. He runs the pub, the hotel and is the village’s accountant. Unlike Mac, however, his roles do not amount to any masquerade but, rather, pragmatism. And, in his roles, he becomes something of a symbolic character of liberation, non-conformity. He will not be pinned down. And, again unlike Mac, he enjoys a rich emotional and sensual life, enjoying regularly, as he does, the affections of his beautiful and sexy wife Stella – and loudly.
Mac is, by turns, initially appalled, frustrated and confused by those he encounters. Most tellingly, the villagers do not conform to expectations (Bill Forsyth, director, playing with us as much as he is with Mac). These are not the sentimental, one-dimensional characters prejudice and cinema would usually dish up. No. They are resolutely unsentimental. Gordon cooks the rabbit that Mac not only feels pity for, but also a peculiar and yet plausible kinship with, and he serves it to Mac and Danny. The inhabitants of Ferness, far from being reluctant to sell, are only too keen to cook up a scheme, hoodwink Mac and Danny, and get the very best deal that they can for the village. They are aided and abetted by Gordon – and the local priest.
But something shifts in Mac. Against himself, he finds himself becoming infatuated with the people, the place and the pace of life. While looking up into the heavens at Happer’s request, he witnesses the aurora borealis, a stark contrast to the man-made light of Houston. The beautiful beach and sea that surround him amount to the direct other of the arid, urban jungle of Houston. These are not subtle contrasts, granted, but as a lack of subtlety goes, I do wonder whether it has ever been managed to such wonderful effect. Meanwhile, Danny changes, too, from a nerdy ‘yes man’ in a suit to a man who embraces his sensual and sexual side, when he meets a real-life mermaid in the shape of web-footed marine biologist Marina, who is hell-bent on protecting the beach and its ecosystem.
What happens next? Well, you’ll have to watch the film. But one clue: Happer turns out to be a much better mentor than Glinda ever was.
Who, exactly, is the hero of Local Hero? Is it Gordon, who seems to have managed a life of practicality, but also freedom and love (one that Mac, smitten with both Gordon’s lifestyle and his wife, recognises when, drunkenly, he puts it to Gordon that they might trade existences: ‘I’ll make a good Gordon, Gordon’). Or is it Happer? Who has somehow, impossibly, married a life of conformity with the life of a dreamer? Or is it Ben Knox, the old man who lives on the beach in a shack, who, it turns out, holds all the cards and may just save everyone from themselves? All are, in their own way, heroes of life. But none more than Mac, who is, after all, an everyman. Mac is most of us. Dorothy returns to the farm in Kansas and rejects her life lessons. Mac arrives back in his apartment in Houston and is haunted by his. He is proof that people can and do change. But will the world accommodate them? Perhaps, like me, you’re asking yourself the same. Somewhere in Ferness, a phone is ringing, unanswered.